Review of "Riddle of Fire": a sentimental debut that bends under the weight of its imagination

Review of “Riddle of Fire”: a sentimental debut that bends under the weight of its imagination

Making the cake should have been easy. The recipe calls for the usual ingredients: flour, sugar, lemon (both zest and juice), blueberries and an egg. But the parenthesis after the egg complicates things. “Preferably spotted,” it reads. In truth, any egg would do. But Jodie (Skylar Peters), Alice (Phoebe Farro) and Hazel (Charlie Stover), the precocious trio at the center of Weston Razooli’s imaginative feature debut Fire puzzle, they’re not just novice bakers, they’re kids too. So what should have been a suggestion becomes a mandate.

The search for the spotted egg is the crux of Razooli’s film, which renders the American West (set in Wyoming but filmed in Utah) as a landscape full of obstacles. There’s a painterly quality to the director’s depiction of the state of the Great Plains: billowing white clouds drift across the powder-blue sky, their path interrupted only by the snow-capped peaks of mountains in the distance. The shortgrass prairie, a mix of burnt orange and desaturated green, looks like something out of a dream. The sharpness of the tree’s leaves evokes their yellow undertones.

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Fire puzzle

The bottom line

So sweet, it’s cloying.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (Realisateurs Fortnight)
Launch: Lio Tipton, Charles Halford, Charlie Stover, Lorelei Olivia Mote, Phoebe Ferro, Skyler Peters
Director-writer: Weston Razoli

1 hour and 54 minutes

Razooli’s style is admirable. Shot on 16mm film, his American landscape, similar to the one Sean Price Williams portrays in the Directors’ Fortnight selection The Sweet East, inspires wonder and appreciation. Nature is brought to life by Razooli’s mix of eye- and ground-level shots and bouncy sound design by Garrard Whatley. Fire puzzle bears aesthetic marks similar to Wes Anderson’s Kingdom of the moonrise, another film structured around the adventure of children. But there’s a preciousness to the younger director’s approach to his material that pushes our admiration ever further into exasperation.

Fire puzzle it tries to capture the amazing way kids experience the world, but the results border on the twee. It’s hard not to think about Margo Jefferson useful analysis about including children in comedies when considering where this movie goes wrong. “The balance between instinct and knowledge is difficult to maintain. The audience doesn’t want to hear that the child is just the author’s seductive little stunt double,” she wrote. “When writers overidentify with their child characters, both the innocence and the experience become cloying.” Jodie, Alice and Hazel – with their precocity and unrealistically sharp wit – all too often feel like these kinds of children.

The film opens with a robbery. Desperate for a new video game, Jodie, Alice and Hazel decide to steal it from the manufacturer’s warehouse. Razooli choreographs the scene, which includes hiding from an unsuspecting guard and sliding through the cracks between boxes, with confidence and humor. It’s a worthy introduction to the improv gang, who secure their goods and race home on their bikes. Their plan isn’t foolproof, though. Once at home, children will eagerly open the game and plug it into their TV. Just as they’re about to sit down, among their towers of treats, they realize they don’t know the password to the TV.

Thus begins their adventure to find the password. After asking access to Jodie and Hazel’s bedridden mother (played by Danielle Hoetmer, the character has a cold), they come to an agreement: if the children can find her a blueberry pie (which her grandmother baked when she was sick like a child) then he will give them the password and give them two hours of uninterrupted screen time.

While Razooli manages to squeeze some interesting moments out of his three young actors, most of the performances are awkward. Part of that comes from a disconnect between the director’s respect for childhood and the reality of being a child. Jodie, Hazel and Alice often make jokes and comments that adults would find cute or charming. This turns them into props for ideas – about youthful innocence and bad behavior – rather than allowing them to become lived characters. The performances end up bordering on almost caricature.

The quest to find the speckled egg has the children follow members of a group called The Enchanted Blade, whose leader, Anna-Freya Hollyhock (Lio Tipton), is a witch. Fire puzzle moves from the children’s town into the surrounding woods, where they meet Anna-Freya’s daughter Petal (Lorelei Olivia Mote). Three becomes four when Jodie, Hazel and Alice join Petal in getting an egg.

The initially enthralling adventure begins to feel like a test of endurance as the children find themselves in increasingly dangerous situations. The scenes become longer and more forgiving, the genres Razooli is experimenting with – heist, adventure, comedy – colliding instead of complementing each other. AND Fire puzzle it’s starting to feel like a collection of distracting gimmicks instead of a genuine story.