Review by Sean Boelman
Riddle of Fire debuted in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes earlier this year to a positive, but relatively low-key reception. Now, it is reappearing where it belongs — at genre festivals, starting with a slot in TIFF’s Midnight Madness program. This throwback is both adorable and fun, cashing in on nostalgia without ever feeling like nostalgia bait.
The film follows a group of three children who find themselves on an adventure up against a mysterious coven after they are sent by their mother on a quest to procure her favorite blueberry pie. It’s a magical adventure that reminds you of the likes of The Goonies or Stand by Me, with light supernatural elements, but really just an innate love of the innocent joy of childhood.
Part of what makes Riddle of Fire work so well, especially in comparison to other pieces of retro/throwback media, is that it truly understands what made the media it references work beyond a superficial level. There’s a very tongue-in-cheek nature to everything happening here — the MacGuffin is a blueberry pie, after all — which gives the movie its much-needed feeling of innocent fun.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t also nail the aesthetic, because it absolutely does. Although there are some undeniably modern elements — like the object of the opening heist being a “cutting-edge” video game system — the cinematography by Jake Mitchell, shot on 16mm Kodak film, lends it a grainy aesthetic that offers the perfect level of nostalgia.
However, in feeling like it was ripped out of the ‘80s, Razooli’s movie does also have the somewhat meandering pacing of the children’s films of the era. It’s more about capturing the sense of childlike wonder that comes with the adventure than the destination the characters reach, and if you are willing to meet the movie on that wavelength, you will be engrossed.
The film will live or die based on how connected the viewer is able to become to the central characters, and thankfully, Razooli writes them in a way that’s almost impossible not to love. Although they do have the archetypes of the genre at their core, they defy expectations throughout the movie in a way that makes them feel endearing and unique.
Razooli deserves praise for getting what might be three of the finest child performances in recent memory. Charlie Stover, Phoebe Ferro, and Skyler Peters are all fantastic in their roles. Not only are they adorable, but also surprisingly nuanced and emotional, especially given the somewhat absurd nature of their actions on display.
Riddle of Fire is the rare homage that actually manages to stand up to the media it references, capturing the atmosphere perfectly while also offering a fun adventure of its own. Weston Razooli’s directorial debut is just so fun that it will be exciting to see what he does next.
Riddle of Fire screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.