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Riddle of Fire

“Riddle of Fire” is the kind of cinematic bedtime story whose whimsical tone makes it easy to overlook its many keenly crafted intricacies. The feature directorial debut by writer/actor Weston Razooli works through a charming conviction: Three kids—brothers Hazel (Charlie Stover) and Jodie (Skyler Peters) and their friend Alice (Phoebe Ferro)—rumble down a country road on their motorbikes to an OTOMO warehouse armed with paintball guns and gummy worms. They fearlessly infiltrate the stockroom, procuring a box simply marked “Angel.” The only resistance they meet is from the manager, whom they mercilessly shoot at before triumphantly thundering back home on their motorbikes. 

Throughout “Riddle of Fire” we’ll find the many seemingly insurmountable obstacles these rambunctious kids can overcome. One barrier they can’t break down, however, is the parental password protecting Hazel and Jodie’s television. See, Angel is a game console. And if the trio want to play it before their summer soon ends, then they need Hazel and Jodie’s sick mother Julie (Danielle Hoetmer) to unlock the television. She’ll only do so if they can make a special kind of blueberry pie. What follows is a difficult odyssey requiring the trio to first acquire a secret recipe from one adult, then to make a run to a grocery store that turns up every ingredient except for a speckled egg: The last egg is taken by an unpleasant, as the kids call him, Woodsy Bastard—who they tail to the forest in the hopes of stealing it back. 

Phrases like “Woodsy Bastard” are indicative of Razooli’s willingness to imagine children as full-fledged human beings: These Peter Pan-esque characters are foul-mouthed runts unafraid of confronting morally bankrupt adults yet are equally prone to stirring further trouble through their flights of naiveté. They are neither too precocious nor too innocent. The result is an exhilarating concoction of fairy tale and fantasy, kissed by a gooey daydream wonderment that is made possible primarily through the knowing performances provided by these young actors. 

That sense of imagination is further translated from the warm lens’ Kodak 16mm coat and the rebellious score: They imbue the woodlands setting with a mystical air. The trio find further help from Petty Hollyhock (Lorelei Olivia Mote), a kind of flower child who seemingly exists in another time in another place. They need her aid in the face of the Woodsy Bastard aka John Redrye (Charles Halford) and his poaching friends Anna-Freya (Lio Tipton), Suds (Rachel Browne), Kels (Andrea Browne), and the dimwitted Marty (Weston Razooli). In a film accumulated by good-for-nothing adults, this quintet is the worst. 

“Riddle of Fire” can sometimes lose its spit, however, spinning too listlessly to the script’s mazy ruts. But there is an uncommon, finely struck sweetness to this film that keeps it from tumbling down mean, unsavory paths. Consider how one scene—initially spelling an overly mature set-up—finds the quartet of kids visiting a hole-in-the-wall bar where a hen that lays speckled eggs lives. The situation causes one to nearly wince: Why put children in such a seedy space? Then a needle of “Baby Come Back” winks to “Little Miss Sunshine,” and the tension evaporates into an adorable vapor.   

You’re either on this film’s wavelength or you’re not: I can see scenes like the aforementioned bar turning some viewers off; I can also see these colorful kids being too hard to handle. But the gentleness of this odyssey, landing on a grace note expressing a kind of pleasantness, in spite of the selfish desires inspiring it, is a complex risk. Razooli accomplishes that feat with an intoxicatingly assuredness that makes this fairy tale feel like a classic in the making. 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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Film Credits

Riddle of Fire movie poster

Riddle of Fire (2024)

113 minutes

Cast

Lio Tipton as Anna-Freya Hollyhock

Charles Halford as John Redrye

Weston Razooli as Marty Hollyhock

Charlie Stover as Hazel A'Dale

Danielle Hoetmer as Julie A'Dale

Lorelei Olivia Mote as Petal Hollyhock

Director

Writer

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