"PHOENIX FORGOTTEN" — 2 stars — Florence Hartigan, Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez, Justin Matthews; PG-13 (terror, peril and some language); in general release
“Phoenix Forgotten” is a found-footage story-within-a-story about a young woman investigating the mysterious 20-year-old disappearance of her older brother.
Like her missing brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts), Sophie (Florence Hartigan) is an aspiring filmmaker, and has decided to make a documentary out of her search for him. “Phoenix Forgotten” intercuts the footage she shoots in the present with footage taken from Josh’s camera decades earlier around the time of his disappearance.
The first half of the film brings us up to speed on what Sophie knows and remembers, which isn’t much. Soon after seeing some mysterious lights in the night sky near their Phoenix, Arizona, home in 1997, Sophie’s then-teenage brother set out into the desert with a couple of friends and was never seen again. Police found the group’s red Jeep and Josh’s video camera, but the tape inside it ran out of footage well before anything out of the ordinary was revealed.
This all happened just after Sophie’s sixth birthday and, 20 years later, she revisits her hometown to interview the various parties connected to the disappearance. Some 1990s-era home movie footage is intercut with contemporary interviews with Sophie and Josh’s parents, as well as the family members of Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews), the two friends who vanished along with him.
A lot of time is spent on Ashley, who seems to be the object of Josh’s amorous affections. Sophie also puts a lot of time into researching the nature of those mysterious lights, with clues pointing to everything from military aircraft to Apache legend.
Through this part of the film, director Justin Barber does a good job of uncovering the story in such a way as to keep the audience involved, even though we’re essentially learning material that Sophie already knows.
Then the film takes a dramatic turn when Sophie discovers a second, heavily damaged video camera, which contains a brand new videotape with what Sophie hopes will be the answer to the mystery. The second half of the film is built entirely out of footage from the second tape, which was recorded after the trio arrived at their desert location.
The second half fills in a lot of blanks, references some of Sophie’s theories, and, without giving too much away, finishes with quite the dramatic ending. But in spite of the drama, and even though you’d expect this kind of movie to end with some ambiguity, “Phoenix Forgotten” feels more incomplete than mysterious, and not just because it doesn’t tell you every last detail of what really happened that night in the desert.
One of “Phoenix Forgotten’s” primary problems is its scattered voice. Part of the time it feels like we are watching Sophie’s finished documentary, other times we are watching Josh’s handiwork, and frequently it feels like we are watching the work of a third-party professional who has stepped in to put a Hollywood sheen on Sophie’s amateur project (effectively making it a story-within-a-story-within-a-story).
Some toggling is to be expected, but “Phoenix Forgotten” comes off as erratic, and its voice problems confuse an already open-ended conclusion to the film. (On a related note, moviegoers wary of shaky-cam should beware.)
The frustrating ending is all the more frustrating because, for an entry in a well-trod genre, “Phoenix Forgotten” is pretty engaging for most of its run time. Unfortunately, its ball-dropping ending has a retroactive effect, and even casual moviegoers may be left feeling like Barber’s film just didn’t have anything unique to say.
Problems like that can be forgiven in a genre that is intended to be scary above anything else. But “Phoenix Forgotten” is more intense than scary, and won’t make anyone lose any sleep unless they're still waiting for a payoff that just isn't going to come.
"Phoenix Forgotten" is rated PG-13 for terror, peril and some language; running time: 80 minutes.