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Earth to Echo by Dave Green (dir), Henry Gayden (wr)
Review by Drew Bittner
Relavity Media  
Date: 27 June 2014

Links: IMDB Entry /

It's the last night together for three best friends. Split apart when their neighborhood is slated for demolition, Tuck, Alex and Munch discover a weird signal on their cellphones...and a map to a spot in the desert. Following that signal will turn into the most important night of their lives.

CAST:
Teo Halm ... Alex
Brian "Astro" Bradley ... Tuck
Reese Hartwig ... Munch
Ella Wahlestedt ... Emma

In Earth to Echo, three middle-schoolers--YouTube impresario Tuck (Bradley), geeky Munch (Hartwig) and foster child Alex (Halm)--are on the verge of being separated. Their neighborhood will be bulldozed in days to make room for a highway overpass. All three, in their own ways, are struggling to cope. Tuck makes videos for YouTube to document their dwindling hours as close friends (and inadvertently reveal his own alienation within his family); Munch hides in his room, fiddling with his startling array of technology rather than face reality; and Alex is angry and sarcastic, afraid that he'll be left behind. Again.

But when their cellphones go crazy, everything changes.

It's not random noise or static--it's a signal. And the signal includes a map. Munch is able to make sense of it, providing them with a destination IF they are brave enough to take it. It's about 16 miles away and well into the desert. That's a long way for three middle school boys on their bikes.

But they make the trip anyway, and discover something has come to Earth. It hasn't arrived unnoticed, either.

The boys have found a tiny capsule containing a huge-eyed alien that could be a robot (though it says it isn't). It mimics their ring tones and thus earns a name from Alex, who seems to have a natural rapport with the tiny visitor. Thus begins a strange scavenger hunt, of sorts, as the alien needs to rebuild its breadbox-sized support module in order to survive.

This search takes them into the home of Emma (Wahlestedt), one of the popular girls at their school. During an earlier encounter, the boys write her off as a rich snob--but she proves to have struggles of her own, and ends up joining the boys. In fact, their mission nearly comes to a crashing stop before she cleverly intervenes.

That's because a "construction worker" (Jason Gray-Stanford) is on their trail and it quickly becomes obvious he isn't interested in pouring concrete. And if he gets his hands on Echo, it's all over for the tiny alien. The four young people are determined not to let that happen, whatever risks they have to take to help Echo get home.

Part an update of ET the Extraterrestrial, part Stand by Me and part Chronicle, Earth to Echo stands on its own by delivering a strong, heartfelt tribute to enduring friendship and how those bonds can be tested. A decision made in an instant of fear turns into a tipping point between Tuck and Alex, while Emma's decision to join them--an equally impulsive choice--makes a huge difference to their chances. There is no saccharine or trite "message" being hammered home, but there is an underlying and important point made about what friendship is and how far you'll go for a friend... even an alien you've just met.

The young actors all deliver spectacularly. It's hard to carry off the emotional volatility of adolescence, juxtaposed with quiet moments of disappointment, betrayal, or epiphany, but all four manage to bring these characters through these moments wonderfully. There are moments of catharsis and moments of sheer terror, alongside hilarity and just being a kid. If the movie is a wonderful ride, it's largely because of how honest a portrayal these four kids bring to the screen.

As the nominal bad guy, Gray-Stanford veers from insincere "hey how you kids doing?" to flat out menace. We aren't clear who he works for--deliberately--but the threat he brings is palpable, especially in his disregard for Echo's welfare. He's a discovery to be studied and used up, if necessary, for the technological miracles that can be squeezed out of him. He does a fine job conveying the amoral nature of seeking power for its own ends.

The "found footage" genre can be problematic. There are amazing examples and others that do not work so well. Here, however, the filmmakers cleverly use this technique to let the kids be kids, genuine and off-the-record, misbehaving and making jokes and being scared out of their wits when they see Echo for the first time, then their unabashed glee at seeing what their new friend can do. It allows the film to get beneath what could have been mannered, studied performances in favor of extremely naturalistic acting. This is really one of the great strengths of the movie, engaging the viewer as if they are right there with the four kids at every moment, sharing this journey with them rather than through the remove of the "fourth wall."

Family friendly (my five year old loved it), this is a movie that families can watch together and enjoy and then discuss on long car rides home. It will hold up to repeat viewings and could well become a classic in the tradition of the movies named above. Time will tell, but I think Relativity Media has a hit on its hands.

Recommended.

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