Producers: Annmarie Sairrino, Moeko Suzuki and Kat McPhee Director: Sonja O’Hara Screenplay: David Ebeltoft Cast: Danny Ramirez, Keana Marie, Mark St. Cyr, Lydia Hearst, Sam A. Coleman, Breon Pugh, Kate Edmonds, Terry J. Nelson, Dodie Brown and Jonetta Kaiser Distributor: Entertainment Squad
Not so much adapted from as inspired by a Japanese video game issued by Kadokawa in 2016, Sonja O’Hara’s film is supposed to be a mystery about a young man, Carlos Alvarez (Danny Ramirez), searching for a young woman, Sarah Blake (Keana Marie, who’s disappeared. But though an earnest attempt to portray the damage done by the opioid crisis, it fails simply on a narrative level.
In the script by David Ebeltoft, Carlos and Sarah have never met in person. Both were given a school assignment to write letters to a randomly chosen pen pal, and they happened to be paired. Carlos lives in Tulsa, and when he receives Sarah’s first letter he’s hospitalized after a beating from the father of a girl he’s been sleeping with. He writes back, and the correspondence continues while he recuperates. But eventually the letters stop, and it’s not until a year later that he receives a final one—postage due, no less—that is just a desperate scrawl in which Sarah says she’s responsible for someone’s death and apologizes.
Troubled, Carlos decides to travel to Sarah’s home town of Baton Rouge to find her and learn what happened. From this point the plot jumps back and forth between his search and a dramatization of what led Sarah to write him that final note, but the two tracks aren’t really parallel, since the one is chronologically distant from the other and, quite frankly, Carlos’ meandering efforts, while they manage to unearth the gist of things, don’t actually reveal the all facts, which are often parceled out pretty much independent of his investigation.
In that earlier timeline, Sarah was living a sad life, her mother Karen (Lydia Hearst) a strung-out, nasty, demanding addict. And she was involved with an equally troubled crowd. Her best friend Zoe (Kate Edmonds) is linked up with Jackson (Sam A. Coleman), who’s looking to move up in the drug trade controlled by Adam (Mark St. Cyr). To that end he persuades good-natured, nervous Caleb, Adam’s nephew who’s sweet on Sarah, to steal a bottle of pills from Adam’s stash for sale.
Meanwhile, Sarah goes to a party and gets smashed after realizing her boyfriend has moved on, collapsing in the backyard of William and Diane Hayden (Terry J. Nelson and Dodie Brown). One might suspect that these two suburbanites, with their clean-cut lawn, fine garden and spiffy home, might turn out to be malevolent, but far from it; they’re a kindly couple who put Sarah up in the bedroom of their departed daughter Emma, feed her and offer her every sort of aid they can. But Emma, the obsessive housewife, is actually devastated by the loss of her child, and Sarah notices that she’s on a whole collection of pills to deal with depression and pain.
That private stock becomes a target of opportunity for Jackson and Caleb, who must make up Adam’s loss, and Zoe pulls Sarah into the scheme. Naturally things go terribly wrong, and when Carlos finally visits the Hayden house, it’s no longer the bucolic-looking place it once was.
Sarah’s story is told in very gritty terms by O’Hara and her production team—production designer Jessica Keli Govea and cinematographer Dan McBride, with the solemn pacing and a spare score by Jessica Weiss adding to the gloomy feel. And the acting in these flashback sequences is committed, if sometimes overly intense (Hearst being a primary offender in that respect); but Marie is quite good in what amounts to the lead, and the others are at least acceptable, though Nelson and Brown come seem to have dropped in from another movie as almost ethereal fairy godparents.
Unfortunately, Ramirez makes a sleepy, rather dull-witted searcher, whose somnolent queries lead him to a beat-down more often than a revelation, and Stephanie Filo’s editing doesn’t so much clarify what’s happening so much as make it more needlessly murky. And when the picture reaches its climax in a conversation between Carlos and Sarah’s friend Mia (Jonetta Kaiser), the movie simply glides over how the clue she provides results in a major discovery, though it’s meant provides emotional release in suggesting what Sarah was longing for all along.
Anyone expecting a movie based on a video game to be exciting will be disappointed by “Root Letter.” Instead this little drama exhibits a yearning for depth which its messy structure, stodgy pace and uneven acting sabotage. But it’s not a total loss: there are some glimmers of future promise along the way.