Nancy Drew doesn't have anything on the delightfully detecting duo of Lulu and Gabby, two friends who are about as best friends as best friends can be in Brian Shackelford's delightful new family whodunnit Hidden Orchard Mysteries: The Case of the Air B&B Robbery.
The seemingly idyllic Hidden Orchard seems like the perfect place to live despite the constantly glaring presence of HOA President Mrs. Jones (Jaymee Vowell) and an increasing number of Air B&B homes in the otherwise monied, perfectly coiffed suburban village. There's a growing tension between the "haves" and "have mores" and a recent home break-in means there's a thief on the loose and everyone in the town is a suspect.
Don't worry. Lulu (Ja'ness Tate, The Right Side) and Gabby (Gabriella Pastore, Champions) will save the day.
Indeed, they do.
A summer holiday movie with a heart of gold and a spirit to match, The Case of the Air B&B Robbery is that rare cinematic gem where people of color get to play against those seriously worn Hollywood stereotypes and stock character caricatures. If you don't fall in love with Lulu and Abby, there's seriously something wrong with you.
If you've ever watched the Nancy Drew mysteries, then you have a bit of an idea of what to expect from this latest release from Vision Films scheduled for VOD on June 16th. A sublime coming-of-age film has simple, meaningful lessons that come to life in beautiful ways including not judging a book by its cover, persevering to seek the truth, and always, always, always standing by your best friend.
The film is the latest collaboration between Shackelford and executive producer Joyce Marie Fitzpatrick, who also shares a story credit for the film. The two are quickly growing a remarkable catalogue of intelligent and entertaining cinematic stories centered around people of color and the worlds in which they live.
This world, Hidden Orchard, feels like it could be a Sunday night Disney film though it possesses just a little more edge and a little bit more of a contemporary vibe.
The Case of the Air B&B Robbery soars on the strength of the believable chemistry and vibrant spark between Tate and Pastore. These two need their own sitcom. I mean seriously. Like right now. The two have both their strengths and weaknesses and it's a complete joy watching them learn how to work with each other and putting in the work to become best friends. Pastore lives with father, Franklin (Davey Moore), and new step-mother, Cynthia (Camilla Elaine), with whom she struggles to bond not because she's difficult but because that kind of bonding is hard and confusing. Pastore's absolutely wonderful, a complex ball of teenager who comes off as one of those over-achieving control freaks precisely because there's so little in her life that she can really control.
Oh, and Pastore is also incredibly funny.
As Lulu, Ja'ness Tate is hilarious and a little more earthy and grounded than Pastore's Gabby. Fashionably fabulous, you can't help but think that maybe there's a Tiffany Haddish in the making here complete with Haddish's girl next door sincerity and a look that says "I'll say it. You know I'll say it."
The story itself is fairly simple. The Parker home has been broken into, a rare occurrence in this otherwise safe little town. The Parkers, played by Donovan Williams and Kim Akia, haven't a clue though the recently returned to town Dai Dai (Kevin Robinson) initially snags the suspicion of the girls and it quickly becomes apparent that not everything is as it seems in Hidden Orchard.
A family friendly mystery easily appropriate for teens and up, The Case of the Air B&B Robbery rides a vibe all its own as Gabby and Lulu explore their town and its people looking to uncover the secret of whodunnit and why. There's a couple of teen angst inspired "hells" to be heard, rumors of an affair, and a late flick armed conflict that is believable in that non-threatening and family friendly sort of way. The film is easily appropriate as a PG type of family flick, though you might have a little explaining to do for kids younger than their teens.
There's some definite delightful performances among the supporting players including Kevin Robinson as the supposed town baddie and possible suspect and terrific turns by Camilla Elaine as a struggling but working hard at it step-parent and Orlando Cortez as Mr. Sanchez. Adding a definite spark late in the film, Catarah Hampshire and Carlos Coleman shine as the husband-wife owners of the town's new cupcake shop.
Truthfully, there's not a weak link here and kudos must be given for the film's entire ensemble cast.
D.P. Frazer Lockhart's lensing is energized and inspired, while the film's original music supports its tone quite nicely.
For more information on Hidden Orchard Mysteries: The Case of the Air B&B Robbery, visit the film's Facebook page. The film arrives on VOD on June 16th and will be available on Amazon, iTunes, FandangoNow, Vudu, Google Play, and Xbox along with a variety of cable affiliates. The DVD is due to arrive at all major online retailers on July 14th.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic