Riddle of Fire: modern-day fairytale channels 1980s pre-teen classics

Weston Razooli's retro-styled debut is a patchy but sincere tween adventure film following a group of kids on a surreal mission to procure a blueberry pie in exchange for the password of their parents’ smart TV.

Phoebe Ferro as Alice, Skyler Peters as Jodie, Charlie Stover as Hazel and Lorelei Olivia Mote as Petal in Riddle of Fire (2023)

There’s a wry conceptual joke at the heart of Riddle of Fire: in an old-fashioned quest narrative that’s centred on mischievous pre-teens, who’ve styled themselves as knights of the realm – and which fetishises its grainy 16mm celluloid textures as a seal of retro authenticity – the holy grail is a vintage video game console, procured by our heroes at great risk from an isolated warehouse. Not only that, but for all of their agile, swashbuckling facility with dirt-bikes and paintball guns, the would-be gamers – brothers Hazel (Charlie Stover) and Jodie (Skyler Peters), and their pal Alice (Phoebe Ferro), an inseparable trio known as the Three Immortal Reptiles – can’t sort out the parental protection software on Hazel and Jodie’s smart TV, a block rendering their new acquisition useless.

The game’s failure to launch, and the very fairytale-ish request by the boys’ mother to fetch her a blueberry pie in exchange for the password, becomes the catalyst for a series of surreal, freewheeling adventures across the very dusty (and fictional) Ribbon, Wyoming. It’s a space that, as imagined by rookie writer-director Weston Razooli, is at once recognisably drab and enchanted around the edges, where newcomers are suspicious, and the local bakery is just a short pedal from the ominously named Faery Castle Mountain.

“Where the fuck are we?” queries a Reptile at one point, drawing attention to both the scrambled geography and the sweetly profane sensibility at the heart of Riddle’s project. When the film premiered last year at Cannes, reviewers couldn’t help but notice the correspondences between Razooli’s work and certain enduring tween entertainments of the 1980s, like the Steven Spielberg-produced cult classic The Goonies (1985) and Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986). Another, more resonant touchstone might be the 1989 fan film Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, which was shot in the Mississippi Delta on a shoestring by a trio of prepubescent auteurs trying to collapse the distance between Hollywood blockbusters and home movies, one lo-fi set piece at a time.

Charlie Stover as Hazel, Skyler Peters as Jodie and Phoebe Ferro as Alice in Riddle of Fire (2023)

Razooli isn’t a kid, but he’s clearly chasing the exhilaration of youthful point-and-shoot filmmaking, and his debut is at its best when it gives itself over to the rhythms of playtime. (The opening paintball raid is a goofy tour de force). More importantly, the filmmaker – who majored in graphic design and cites the films of Miyazaki Hayao as an influence – stops short of putting everything on screen in cosy scare quotes. Instead, the pendulum swings the other way, in the direction of simple – and sincere – narrative and dramatic archetypes which, as deployed, function just well enough to get the film (and the Reptiles) from one end of the storyline to another. Over the course of their journey, which grows in danger and intrigue, we meet huntsmen, trolls and even witches, all of whom are exactly as magical as they appear to be – belief and its various virtues and discontents being probably the closest thing the script has to an explicit theme.

As a calling card for future work, Riddle of Fire is likely to earn its maker plenty of attention: it’s beautifully designed and executed and carried over its scattered rough patches by a soundtrack that’s heavy on medieval stringed instruments and moody new wave synthesisers. The craftsmanship is such that it renders the film susceptible to more self-indulgence than is strictly necessary; having created an immersive, intriguing low-budget fantasy world, Razooli indulges in his fair share of downtime, to the point that the Reptiles’ saga bumps up against the two-hour mark, which is simply too long for a movie whose pleasures are so slender.

The distended running time comes perilously close to exposing the inexperience of Razooli’s young actors, who are better with one-liners than expository monologues (Peters’ often-mumbled dialogue comes with subtitles, which somehow miraculously never feels like a joke at his expense). There’s a definite mileage-may-vary aspect to the whimsy here, but Riddle of Fire deserves credit for creating and sustaining its tone from beginning to end, and for at least considering the possibility of purity at a moment when so much entertainment – including and especially stories aimed at younger demographics – suffers from potent and compulsory irony poisoning. Riddle of Fire is many things, but it’s never sarcastic or mean-spirited; it follows the road paved by its good-intentions to somewhere better than expected. 

Riddle of Fire is in UK cinemas from 7 June