Those polarising threats of a Goonies remake lose some of their power this week with the release of Earth to Echo. David Green’s bittersweet anthem for alienated youth is so profoundly in love with the 1983 classic that The Goonies could be credited as supporting cast. Yet the tender delivery of this adoration is such that the frequent nods to it are entirely forgivable. By acknowledging the singularly treacherous tightrope between childhood and adolescence with generosity, Earth to Echo forges a fresh path over this well trodden ground. This is jointly achieved by the guilelessness of the four young leads and the clever incorporation of social media as narrator.
Our Goonies are Alex, Tuck and Munch – The Mulberry Ballers Club. A trio of misfits in the Las Vegas ‘burbs, bonded by their exclusion from the in-crowd. Munch (Reese Hartwig) is Data 2.0 – techie, eccentric and unintentionally hilarious. Foster kid Alex (Teo Halm) wears his surly resentment as a cloak to shield him from rejection. Bruised cynical by the system and sequestered with a forever family he dare not love, he embraces the demolition of his new home as inevitable. Even as he mourns the loss of his friends. Instigator Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley) – architect of the Echo story online – just wants out of his brother’s shadow and to make their last hours in the neighbourhood count.
When all the mobile phones in their locale identically misbehave, the gang pedal out of town to discover the cause. With demolition crews waiting in the wings to take apart their homes in less than 48 hours they welcome the distraction of a quest. In the fine tradition of E.T. and Super 8 the bureaucrats are the baddies here. The officious construction workers of the early film revealing themselves to be something more sinister as the story unfolds. The boys decipher a map which leads them to Echo – a wounded, vulnerable alien traveller far from home – and a scavenger hunt begins to rebuild the disassembled bot. But with government officials in hot pursuit and lunchroom crush “Mannequin Girl” Emma (Ella Wahlestedt) along for the ride, their final hurrah becomes a far more adult proposition.
In Emma’s company the banter falls away and Alex’s bewilderment and rage rush to the surface. He is more Gordie Lachance than Mikey Walsh in his jangling pain. As Echo’s vulnerabilities mirror Alex’s own, Emma too holds up a mirror to his life. Her unexpected frankness and courage shake the youngster and his violent reaction to her is the first big emotion he dares display. Halm and Wahlestedt shine brightest when they share screen time, demonstrating admirable maturity as their bond evolves. As a character Emma is the group’s lynchpin and she dazzles in her self-possession and zeal. Equally dazzling is the gradual restoration of Echo’s powers which build tension and add undeniable pizazz. Maxime Alexandre and team deliver cinematography that waltzes from one surprise to the next with a fittingly youthful verve punctuated by an excellent soundtrack. This is an exhilarating adventure.
To develop a lifelong relationship with cinema we need to find the films that speak directly to us as early as possible. They need not be masterpieces – there is time enough to discover those later in life – these profound pictures are the ones in which we recognise ourselves. Exploring fond memories of Stand By Me, The Goonies and E.T. without exploiting or tarnishing them, Earth to Echo finds its own voice and uses it to speak straight to the heart of a pre adolescent audience. Evident in the character renderings is same sensitivity of touch and painful recall that made The Way Way Back so special. Teen speech patterns are as unique and complex as fingerprint whorls and, although some of the young leads’ dialogue is repetitive – the improvised portions a little tentative – it is never inauthentic.
While the found footage phenomenon is emitting its death rattle in the horror aisle. Diluted by too many sequels and too little innovation. It may yet find redemption beside the dance movies and dystopian YA adaptations in PG corner. With cruelty, torture and ghouls excised, the potential to journal a personal journey is realised instead. The plaintive cry of outsiders everywhere rings clear as a bell: my voice matters too. In allowing these fictional kids to tell their story through their own voices and media, writers Henry Gayden and Andrew Panay gift young audiences with ownership of it. Which is not to say that grown ups should stay away. At times we’ve all been guilty of picking harmless films apart. Of leaping on imperceptible flaws or being critical for the sake of being critical. Earth to Echo gently reminds us that sometimes it feels good to just feel good.