Originally published on April 24, 2017. Phoenix Forgotten is available on Hulu’s streaming service.
Overview: Twenty years after strange lights appeared over Phoenix, Arizona, a young filmmaker seeks the truth behind the disappearance of her brother who went missing while investigating the sightings. Cinelou Films; 2017; PG-13; 87 minutes.
Worth Remembering: I frequently see people using the terms “found footage” and “mockumentary” interchangeably, which is an error I’m never in a hurry to correct, given that anyone who hasn’t learned the difference by now likely has little interest in the horror/sci-fi genres where the two different forms are most frequently applied and the distinction most necessary. But in the case of Phoenix Forgotten, the understanding of the separate definitions is imperative, because the new film from Director Justin Barber contains one of each. A mockumentary is a fictional documentary, presented as an intentional product created by authors who may or may not be present in the movie– it’s edited and packaged to appear as a documentary that has been through a production process. Found footage, comparatively, is a form in which a story is presented as a collection of clips filmed by characters within a fictional narrative and discovered (or found) by the story’s presenters, who are most often different from those who captured the footage. Phoenix Forgotten presents a mockumentary authored by a sister investigating the disappearance of her brother, whose final hours are presented within as a found footage movie. When these two separate forms dance gracefully, and with balanced attention—the first half of this movie—Phoenix Forgotten nearly elevates itself into something exceptional.
The Mockumentary: As grown-up Sophie returning home with a cameraman to research her brother Josh’s (Luke Spencer Roberts) disappearance twenty years after the fact, Florence Hartigan carries a lot of weight as the emotional core of what is, at first, an emotionally complex film. Sophie’s research and interrogation open a lot of doors where unexpected substance spills into what could be a very generic B-film. Barber articulates a measured and mature look at familial grief, spearheaded by Josh and Sophie’s now-divorced parents, Steve (Clint Jordan) and Caroline (Cyd Strittmatter). There are avenues of intriguing emotional sub-text here, including Sophie’s own evident survivor’s guilt, which help enliven the more standard central found footage horror.
The Found Footage: Sophie’s investigation centers on Josh’s own footage, filmed on a personal camera, and another “borrowed” from his high school by his partner, producer, and friend, Ashley (Chelsea Lopez). Infused with emotion provided by the framing mockumentary, the found footage narrative is rather strong at first. Josh’s nerd influences, observed in both formats by the pop culture artifacts in his room, allows for an injection of speculative mythology to add color to a rather standard UFO sighting, including an interesting tie-in to Native American beliefs. These added elements and innovative construction adds an energy that heightens the unnerving effect of the encounter scenes. I’m beating a dead coyote here, but, once the film parts ways with the mockumentary, abandoning a tragic amount of emotional nuance, mythological intrigue, and Hartigan’s heavy lifting, everything dulls.
Worth Forgetting: A late turn of events sees a deus ex machina in the form of a recovered camera given back to the school. When this camera is turned over to Sophie, the film abandons her and her documentary and finishes exclusively with Josh’s filmed footage, the grainy, shaky cam using Lopez’s expressive face and obscured, frenetic sequences of loud, unimpressive abduction to close an ambitious film with an entirely unambitious third act.
Overall: Phoenix Forgotten, which builds as a unique experiment of dueling forms seeking emotional complexity, surrenders to simpler paths in its final act.
Featured Image: Cinelou Films