TIFF 2023 | Riddle of Fire (Weston Razooli, US) — Midnight Madness

By Lawrence Garcia

Despite the changes that Cahiers du Cinéma has undergone over the years, its legacy still carries some critical authority—enough, at least, that its apparent endorsement of Weston Razooli’s debut feature, Riddle of Fire, which graced the cover of its Cannes issue back in May, was enough to convince me to see the film. Call it confirmation bias, but for a while the movie seemed to make good on that promise. Set on a summer day in Wyoming, the film centres on a trio of young kids—Hazel (Charlie Stover), Alice (Phoebe Ferro), and Jodie (Skyler Peters)—who go on a quest to find a blueberry pie for one of their moms, with the prospect that she will unlock the password-protected TV afterwards, allowing them to play a highly anticipated video game. Despite the film’s transparent bid for cult status—Razooli has described the film as a “PG-13 Gummo,” an elevator pitch that critics and programmers have only too happily taken up—there’s a physicality and control to his decoupage that’s not easily dismissed. A well-engineered sequence of the kids stealing the latest Otomo release from a warehouse and then escaping on their bikes convincingly conveys a sense of spontaneity and child’s play. The film also manages to harmonize the script’s self-consciously verbose dialogue with the line deliveries of his young actors, allowing esoteric references to blend in with childlike non sequiturs. 

Riddle of Fire drops a few stitches when the plot thickens in earnest, and the kids find themselves in a forest confronting a witch (Lio Tipton) and her coven, known as the Enchanted Blade Gang. Unfortunately, the amount of in-film magic proves to be inversely proportional to the movie’s charm. Ultimately, Razooli’s film lands somewhere on the lower end of “promising debut” territory—not quite the resounding retort to “l’entropie sundancienne” that the Cahiers critics had led me to expect. Still, just as the kids’ unexpected detour to playing their long-awaited video game becomes its own form of play, Riddle of Fire demonstrates that figuring out what someone else might’ve liked about a movie can be its own sort of pleasure.