Reviewed by: Ryan McLelland

Message in a Bottle is the newest film from indie director Rhonda Parker.  Last year I found her feature Friends Don’t Let Friends Date Friends which I found to be quite charming.  It was filmed on a shoestring budget but had lots of charm, especially from lead actress Amelia Favata.  Message in a Bottle is Parker’s follow-up – another shoestring budget indie film about the adventures of a boy and a girl when they were young and the repercussions that adventure has when they get older.

So the film is split into two parts.  As kids Johnny (Matthew Owen Kozak) and Timmy (Jack Champion) are best friends, though Timmy is sad that his older friend is leaving him behind since he’s going to a new school.  Timmy still has another year at his school and is pretty bummed out as he doesn’t seem to have many friends other than Johnny.  The kids end up finding a bottle that floated down a local river.  Inside the bottle?  A message.

But this is no ordinary message.  It’s a kid’s drawing inside.  Johnny and Timmy have a feeling that something is wrong.  That whoever sent this message is actually calling out for help.  When a second message surfaces, which is a makeshift map, Johnny and Timmy decide to wonder into the woods to see if there really is some kid lost in the wilderness that needs assistance.

The two are joined by Emily (Emma Morrison) and the three are off.  It’s a cute little trip as these kids explore the woods.  There is a spark of teenage love between Johnny and Emily, while Timmy and Johnny just like messing with each other as much as possible.  It’s typical kids stuff: Teenage lust.  Dangerous of the woods.  Bullies.

The adventures of the trio has a kind of sweet Goonies meets Stand By Me vibe.  When they finally come upon solving the mystery of the bottle messages they also run into a dangerous situation and a place where they should not have come to.  It’s a bit of a mystery about what happened and there’s some tragedy as well.

The film then shifts to when the kids are older and it remains with the older kids storyline for the rest of the film.  It really boils down to cause and effect.  The cause is their childhood, while the effect is the young adults are in their last year of high school.  The plot meanders a bit until the viewer gets to the end of the film when the film comes full circle.

Even though I enjoyed the narrative of the film I found myself slightly divided overall and I’ll try to explain why.  As the film feels like it is two parts there it is broken down into (A) the kids story and (B) the young adult story.  The kids story is vastly superior to the young adult story.  The plot is quite interesting and you really want to see what happens if and when the kids reach their destination.

The problem I had with the kids story is the problem I have with many films starring kids.  Sometimes it is more evident in a independent production but you can find studio feature films with the same problems.  It’s the acting of the kids.  It’s nothing against them because I’m sure they are trying their damnedest to do a great job.  But sometimes the kids really come off as reading lines off a page instead of encapsulating the characters they are supposed to be.  Unfortunately with child actors you aren’t going to get Jodie Foster, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Macaulay Culkin each time.

The problem I had with the young adult story is I thought the overall plot felt a bit off and unneeded.  However the acting here was superb.  Paul Ryan plays the adult Johnny and does a pretty great job as a young adult still traumatized by his youth.  He’s from the other side of the tracks and feels very apart from the other kids in his high school.  While the older Johnny doesn’t come off a seething monster he does have the ability to be a guy you really don’t want to be around.  He’s supposed to be a tough guy and Ryan is able to convey that onscreen.

Then comes the biggest problem of them all: Emmy Wolfe as the adult Emily.  Emmy is a star.  I mean she is a true talent.  Every time she is onscreen she eclipses every single actor around her.  In a film like Message in a Bottle you probably have a lot of local actors or just friends/family who want to be in a film.  But Emmy Wolfe brings severe gravitas to her role.

She’s a natural on camera and the camera really loves her.  But as she’s acting onscreen with Johnny or her classmates or just sitting around the table with her family at dinner, she just acts circles around the other actors.  Is this Wolfe’s fault?  Absolutely not.  Should Rhonda Parker not have cast her?  Again – absolutely not.  She is such a find and anyone with half a brain would see her in this movie and call every single agent in New York and Los Angeles.  I feel the same way about Emmy Wolfe as I do actors like Jeff Bridges or Denzel Washington.  Sure they’ve been starts for 30 years, but go back to their earlier films and you see a non-famous actor who carries themselves so well.  You watch Bridge and Washington’s early films and you just have a feeling that they are going to be huge stars.  You feel that way watching Emmy Wolfe in Message in a Bottle.  She’s lightning in a bottle.  If Rhonda Parker was smart she’d immediately write a script and cast Wolfe as the lead before she loses the chance to do so again.

Which brings me back to my overall thoughts on the film.  I liked the plot of the first half but didn’t find the acting to be quite satisfactory.  I really didn’t care for the second half’s plot but I thought the actors were really good – especially Emmy Wolfe.  As the film feels like two parts, there are sections of each part that I liked and disliked.  Overall the screenplay was good despite the shortcomings of the third act while the acting of Paul Ryan and Emmy Wolfe really elevated the third act thanks to solid performances.

The film is great, regardless of the problems I personally had with it.  Whether it is the adventures of a couple kids in the woods or a high school drama about fitting in, there really is something for everyone.  I also want to point out that with independent cinema that everything isn’t always going to be perfect.  Parker doesn’t have a million dollars to shoot her film.  I’m sure the production budget was quite small.  But Parker is able to truly get the most onscreen in terms of locations and a wide variety of actors.  It’s an accomplishment and I can praise Parker once again on being able to bring together a film that is quite epic in its scope.

At the end of the day I recommend seeking out Message in a Bottle.  It’s just another example of great independent filmmaking and a testament to doing a lot with a little.  Emmy Wolfe is the true reason to watch this movie.  See her now so when you see her in a television show or a feature film in a couple years, you can say you liked her all the way back when.


Learn more about Message in a Bottle and other Beaver Alley films here:

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