Sincere and spirited, the PG-rated “Earth to Echo” evokes those 1980s kid-adventure tales such as “E.T.” and “Stand By Me.” Except the visuals are jerkier and the tug on the heartstrings lighter.
There’s a throwback innocence to this story of three awkward middle-school boys on their last night together in a small Nevada town. Their neighborhood stands in the way of highway construction, and their families have sold their homes.
These boys are technologically savvy, like most 2014 children. Scrambled messages on their cell phones alert them to disturbances afoot beyond the highway construction. The clues inspire them to take a nighttime bicycle trip to the desert, without parental knowledge, to find the source.
But they aren’t savvy-savvy, as so many wiseacre kids are in movies. Amateur videographer Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley) talks the biggest game, but he’s a nerd whose older brother is the cool one. Munch (Alex Hartwig) is scared of his shadow and holes up in his bedroom, which he has filled with electronic odds and ends. Alex (Teo Halm) is cool but feels like he is an outsider because he always has lived in foster homes.
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Rookie feature filmmaker Dave Green shows a way with young actors. Hartwig, alternating between terror and naivete as the boys venture into the unknown, is the most endearing. But the whole trio is believable, as is Ella Linnea Wahlestedt, as a popular girl from school who is more daring than the boys ever expected.
Though clearly inspired by 1980s movies, “Earth to Echo” visually taps today’s abiding love for YouTube-style video footage. The film tells its story through “found footage” shot by Tuck and the other boys on devices including a spy cam in the form of eyeglasses. This means every scene carries the visual point of view of kids who are traveling and/or frightened, and who drop the camera a lot.
Growing up amid a constant barrage of shaky YouTube clips, as today’s young people do, is as alien to me as aliens. But I cannot imagine that equilibriums of any age will enjoy the jerkiest moments of “Echo.” The 2012 film “Chronicle” employed a similar conceit but executed it better.
At steadier moments, the kid-cams can lend great immediacy to or enhance the mood of a scene. A barely lit nighttime desert road ahead, viewed from the handlebars of a boy’s bicycle, seems to lead not just to the source of the cell-phone mystery, but to future possibilities only hinted at by middle-school life. You almost can taste the sensation of freedom, along with the fear, on that road.
It does not reveal too much to say that road leads to something otherworldly, and that the something otherworldly is kind of cute. But considering the whole story rests on it, it’s also not all that much to phone home about. That’s because the filmmakers appear to believe at this point that 1980s homages are enough, neglecting to offer a story line that’s even close to original.