Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Root Letter: Pen Pal Noir

Periodically, there are campaigns to revive the lost practice of letter writing. This film could be part of that effort—and it makes a compelling case. It also represents the road rarely taken by video game film adaptations. It is inspired by Kadokawa’s “visual novel” mystery game, but even faithful players might not realize the connection if they weren’t informed by the opening credits. Yet, Sonja O’Hara’s Root Letter deserves credit for being its own thing when it releases tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

Carlos Alvarez is the hard-working son of an immigrant maid in Oklahoma and Sarah Blake is the frustrated daughter of an opioid-addicted single mother in Baton Rouge. They have very different tastes in music, but they find they can relate to each other when assigned to be pen pals, through their high school English classes. In fact, they keep exchanging letters, even after the project ends—and then Blake goes quiet.

Alvarez could tell something was very wrong from the last letters he received, so he drives to Baton Rouge looking for her. It will not be easy, since he does not even know what she looks like. Starting with her school contact info, Alvarez tracks down her deadbeat fair-weather oxy-addled friends. They claim to know nothing, but the way they say so holds a great deal of menace.

Root Letter
is about as slow and brooding as a film can get and still be considered a thriller, but that is arguably a neat trick to pull off. O’Hara and screenwriter David Ebeltoft have a great deal of compassion and sympathy for their pen pal protagonists—and they are relatively forgiving of hardscrabble world they inhabit. Nearly every character in this film is a victim to some extent—the question is how they respond to their circumstances.

Still, it probably wouldn’t have killed O’Hara to stir the pot a tad more vigorously. However, she gets some great work from her young cast. Danny Ramirez (whom the press materials are eager to remind us played Fanboy in
Top Gun: Maverick, which is definitely a seriously cool credit) brings an old school understated film noir intensity to the film as Alvarez.

Likewise, Keana Marie plays Blake with great sensitivity and vulnerability. They are both smart kids who deserve better, so the audience definitely pulls for them. It is a strong cast all around, with earthy contributions from Mark St. Cyr and Terry J. Nelson adding grit and depth.

There is no question
Root Letter ranks in the top tier of video game-derived films, along with Detention and Werewolves Within (but Uwe Boll sure helps make the bell curve distribution look so much better for everyone else). It actually compares favorably with films like The Devil All the Time that explore the dark corners of hill-and-swamp-country America. Recommended accordingly, Root Letter releases tomorrow (9/1) on iTunes.