Synopsis: Three 13-year olds, misfits at school, are about to have their tight friendship broken up. The neighborhood is slated for demolition for a new highway and everyone is moving away. The day before they all move, weird things start happening to their cell phones, and they figure out that the images on their phones are a map to a location 20 miles away in the Nevada desert. They decide to spend a final evening together, following the map on their bikes. They discover a piece of metallic junk under a high-voltage transmission wire which turns out to house an alien (fortunately small, benign, cute, resembling a small owl) in need of help. They spend the entire night on a quest to help this tiny creature, never quite sure if they are good Samaritans helping a lost traveler or unwitting accomplices to a potential disaster that could kill everyone in their neighborhood. Along the way they pick up a fourth companion, the pretty girl from school who lives in another world from them and yet isn’t really so different. They also have to avoid sinister construction workers who are not whom they appear to be.
Review: I spent the good part of an hour looking for a movie that my family could watch together. My children are 12 and 9 years old, and it is becoming more and more difficult to find good quality movies that meet everyone’s differing needs and tastes. We did not want nightmare-inducing graphic images, nor cloying feel-good family flics, nor overdone or underdone animation, nor inferior 20th century special effects that my jaded children already despise. We picked this one because it interested the children and we knew nothing about it except some cool CGI in the previews. However my hopes weren’t high. Movie buffs will recognize many of the familiar tropes in the above synopsis that I recognized, and I expected something very derivative. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised.
The plot sounds like a mash up of Spielberg alien movies – Close Encounters and E.T., with a touch of cinema verité (ala Blair Witch Project). The main device of the movie is that it is a self-narrated video project made by one of the 13-year-old boys. I fully expected ninety minutes of bizarre camera angles, blurring racing shots, poor film editing, and voice-over explications for whatever could not be shown visually at an objective angle. But none of that happens. The device works, in part because modern camera technology has evolved to the point that it is entirely believable a thirteen year old could have several mountable, high-quality cameras including a Google Glass type contraption. It also works because the story is never forced to fit this device, nor made to take a back seat to special effects.
The plot is kept simple so the filmmakers could focus on telling an adventure story and growing the characters with detail. There are no special effects in the first ten or twenty minutes of the movie; we simply get to know these quirky, charming, flawed, and very real children with little or no impending sense of science fiction on the horizon. By the time the adventure takes off, you care about them and don’t need the action or the CGI to keep you hooked. In fact, the special effects are generally underdone, and slowly ramped up, which prevents the film from breaking out of its hyper-real, documentary quality. Even as machines come apart, float through the air, and piece together again, you have the sense that it is real.
Thematically the film deals with children on the cusp of adolescence wanting some power over their lives, which admittedly is not everyone’s cup of tea. However the movie is never boring or tiresome, and the pace keeps you distracted from questions like, “Why haven’t the camera batteries run out?”or “Why don’t these kids look like they’ve been up all night long?” It was suspenseful without being stressful (important for my children), emotional without being maudlin, and often unexpectedly funny, all of which is supported, rather than hindered, by the device of self-filming.
Most refreshing to me is that the children act their age at all times, and the story is told entirely from their vantage point. Perhaps having a 12 year old in my house helped, but the movie brought back memories of that raging hormonal, emotional, scary time of life. The adults are real adults who talk down to children, indulge them, worry about them, dismiss them, and constantly underestimate them.
This is not a work of literature. It is a fun romp, and the writers did a great job of fleshing out the story while cutting out any fat. At ninety minutes, it won’t take up your entire evening, and my only criticism is that it will certainly raise my daughter’s expectations of getting her own cell phone sometime soon.