The latest film from writer/director Rhonda Parker, Message in a Bottle is a teen/young adult adventure involving the lives of Johnny Tatro (Matthew Owen Kozak), a passionate youth who carries more than a little baggage due to the skeletons in his past, Timmy (Jack Champion), a sheltered kid whose life is more than a little impacted by the medical issues that follow him everywhere, and Emily (Emma Morrison), a young woman struggling to find her own identity and break out of the shadows of her sister.
The three teens head out on a journey to rescue a kid sending eerie notes downstream in bottles. Seemingly the kind of adventure that adventure-seeking teens often find themselves embarking on, for Johnny, Timmy, and Emily it's a journey that will change their lives forever.
Message in a Bottle is a definite notch up for Parker, an up-and-coming filmmaker whose ability to attract a quality cast for her microcinema efforts is impressive and perhaps best exemplified by the inclusion here of young Jack Champion who has since been picked up for the Avatar franchise.
Parker deserves kudos for infusing Message in a Bottle with authenticity, the film's early Stand by Me vibe quickly giving way to a story that takes risks that pay off and isn't afraid to dabble in difficult story threads.
As our trio arrives at their destination, it's apparent that their innocent teen adventure has taken a drastic turn and a tragedy occurs that changes everything.
Four years later, Johnny (now played by Paul Ryan) has headed down a wayward path with his budding, chaste romance with Emily having given way to bad options and bad choices. Emily, (now played by Emmy Wolfe) has left Johnny behind, her seemingly idyllic college life offering nary a glimpse of the inner turmoil and difficulty she has in dealing with "normal" daily life. Of course, their paths will cross again.
Will it matter?
Message in a Bottle benefits from an effective, emotionally honest soundtrack that often companions the film's more poignant scenes while the lensing by Mark and Rhonda Parker is remarkably pristine given the film's status as a low-budget feature.
Perhaps more than anything, Message in a Bottle blossoms on the strength of its ensemble cast including for those incredibly difficult scenes that attempt to maintain character cohesiveness once a character ages and the actor/actress playing them changes. It's a difficult choice to pull off, but it works quite well here.
With her last film, Friends Don't Let Friends Date Friends, Parker picked up the prize for Best Student Film at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival and there's no question she continues to grow as a filmmaker despite the inherent challenges that come with producing what is essentially a "no-budget" production. While there's no question that Message in a Bottle shows its microcinema roots, it's also an effective, involving film with solid performances from the ensemble and an intelligent story that has elements of a teen thriller yet always feels developmentally appropriate from beginning to end.
For more information on Message in a Bottle, visit the film's official website linked to in the credits and be sure to follow the film as it heads off into its festival run.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic