Some would posit that the magic of the written word is an art that is gradually being lost. Any cursory examination of the quality of penmanship in recent years among children could easily bolster these claims. That, though, doesn’t stop a school in Shreveport from forcing students to adopt pen pals as an assignment, thereby assembling the building blocks of director Sonja O’Hara’s exciting Root Letter. Adapted from a Japanese videogame, the shift in setting from Japan to a rural Louisiana seemingly battered by the opioid crisis sets the stage for a darkly suspenseful and engaging thriller made successful by a memorable performance from Keana Marie.
Marie plays Sarah, a young high school student grappling to cope with a broken home and her mom’s (Lydia Hearst) struggles with addiction. Her former best friend Mia (Jonetta Kaiser) hooked up with Sarah’s ex, and even her remaining friends Zoe and Caleb (Kate Edmonds and Breon Pugh, respectively) are succumbing to the dangers that come with a life devoid of hope. Zoe is sleeping with a manipulative drug pusher, and the gullible Caleb is roped into a dangerous scheme involving prescription pain killers. Can Sarah escape the dangers and temptations of this imperiled existence?
“…a young high school student grappling to cope with a broken home…”
Like the videogame, most of the narrative of Root Letter is unveiled in the form of written correspondence between Sarah and Carlos, her pen pal in Oklahoma, played by Danny Ramirez. One of her letters to him reveals a shocking turn of events leading to Sarah going missing. This causes Carlos, a victim of his own problematic background, to embark on a trek to find and save Sarah if need be. The careful unveiling of the complex events surrounding her disappearance writer David Ebeltoft employs works well to keep the narrative engrossing. However, the relationship between Carlos and Sarah moves a bit too rapidly to believe he would cross state lines to find someone he has never met in person. Plus, the conclusion isn’t quite as cathartic as many viewers might want it to be, though it makes sense from a writer’s perspective.
Keana Marie’s performance is electric, and she’s a natural in front of the camera, shouldering the majority of the dramatic turns in a film laden with heavy material. She’s ready for the big leagues, and O’Hara never disappoints us by letting the film stray too far from the lead actor. And honestly, for a film with such humble resources, the supporting cast also bolsters what would already have been an impressive work with less capable actors.
While the viewing metrics of streamers are becoming increasingly obscured from sight for most of us, it’s hard to push back against the notion that stories in the YA-vein like Root Letter would be a resounding success on most platforms. Sonja O’Hara and Keana Marie are a pair worth remembering. Hopefully, the powers that be take notice of this indie gem because there’s a wealth of talent waiting to be explored. Maybe we should, I dunno, write them a letter?
"…Marie's performance is electric..."
It’s a great movie and I agree with the reviewer. I thought Lydia Hearst, too, was phenomenal in her very difficult role.