Studio: Gravitas Ventures
Director: Kerry Bellessa
Writer: Kerry Bellessa, Joshua Oram
Producer: Kerry Bellessa, Summer Bellessa, Trevor Engelson
Stars: Summer Bellessa, Chris Hill, Jasen Wade, Caleb Thompson, Brooke Thompson, Tom Murray
Two best friends chase down an abducted child after seeing the suspected kidnapper’s car identified in an Amber Alert.
“Amber Alert” has taken some bruising lumps from bored critics and disappointed viewers, and I get it. The devil is in the details, and despite a realistic premise, a fair share of unpaved roads and potholes understandably prevents the movie from being a universal crowd pleaser.
To be more specific, “Amber Alert” suffers from common problems many “found footage” films face, the first of which is the tedious exposition of uneventful getting-to-know-you introductions. I have never watched an “Amazing Race” audition tape. But the one being shot by Nate and Sam, the two primary characters in “Amber Alert,” is enough to warrant sending a sympathy card to the Casting Director for CBS’ reality television division, who presumably has to sit through hours of tapes like these on a regular basis.
Nate and Sam’s mundane morning of miniature golf, batting cages, serenading, and putting goldfish in plastic bags is eight minutes that feels like eight hours. A lot of “found footage” movies have equally pointless openings, and the one for “Amber Alert” is as disposable as its counterparts.
Yet something accomplished in retrospect is the chilling notion of how a day that starts with putt-putt can unexpectedly conclude with the confrontation of a homicidal pedophile. Nate and Sam, with Sam’s little brother Caleb behind the camera in the backseat, pass an Amber Alert message on the highway and then pass the car identified by the sign. When the police are inconveniently nowhere to be found, the trio takes it upon themselves to act as the possibly last hope for the little girl inside the car.
While such moments are few and far between, there are scenes of genuine tension. As annoying as Nate and Sam’s habit of incessantly talking over one another is, the one time it works is when silence sucks the air out of the car after realizing they are tailgating a suspected child predator. A legitimate “what would you do” scenario plays out when they are subsequently forced to make on the fly decisions regarding the pursuit while dealing with a justified fear of being caught. And the finale in a disturbing lair of crumbling dollhouses and dirty mattresses looming under the shadow of a video camera makes skin crawl from the mental association that these makeshift dungeons actually exist in unassuming suburban homes.
Unquestionably, the loud and constant squabbling between the couple, which occupies a significant portion of the runtime, is a colossal distraction. It is also broadcast on a frequency that the human ear cannot help but want to tune out. Which is a shame because when it is not continually repeating the same character complaints of “I’m hungry” or shouting demands of “follow that car,” the dialogue is believably organic. Conversations do not sound scripted, yet they do not have the awkward pauses and stunted stop-starts that usually come with improvisation.
In his lone on-camera appearance, Jasen Wade nails the charismatic mix of charming smooth-talker and creative liar to sell his sinister kidnapper hook, line, and sinker. It shows that had the movie been able to tighten itself to its key beats, instead of padding to feature length with redundant filler, “Amber Alert” might have made a gripping one-hour drama with commercials.
The movie only runs an already brief 70 minutes before epilogue text hits the screen. Giving Sam a backstory of having dealt personally with abduction or molestation would have vindicated her arguably irrational behavior about how to treat the situation. And adding one or two more setpieces to accompany the gas station interlude, first confrontation, and climax as major moments would have gone a long way towards counterbalancing excessive driving and grating argument sequences.
Instead, “Amber Alert” chooses to lengthen the wrong parts of the film. An unfortunate side effect is that the movie ends up becoming a monument to the hopefully fictional ineptitude of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department.
Getting on board with some of the convenient developments and cheats that “Amber Alert” requires its audience to forgive is a big ask, and has proven to be one that many viewers are unable to accept for good reason. But even if the movie does not work as a whole, it is still a better way to employ “found footage” than churning out another paranormal investigation thriller. And in between the doldrums of whiny voices and overexposed views out a windshield, the too real terror of helplessness at the hands of a twisted stalker reflects a grim depiction of frighteningly relatable horror.
Review Score: 65