All found footage films need to find a reason to exist, a reason why there is a camera set permanently to the on position. In the case of “Phoenix Forgotten” it’s a sister trying to make a documentary about her brother’s disappearance.
“Are you going to be filming the whole time,” asks her father.
“That’s the whole idea,” says Sophie (Florence Hartigan).
“I feel like Harrison Ford,” he laughs.
With that framework out of the way the story gets going, using the (now debunked) real life Phoenix, Arizona UFO sightings of March 13, 1997 as a backdrop for the action.
When sonic booms rocked the city Josh Bishop (Luke Spencer Roberts) didn’t buy his father’s explanation that the air force was doing a practice run overhead. Shooting some grainy footage, the teenager decides to investigate. With the help of school friends Ashley Foster (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark Abrams (Justin Matthews) and a borrowed school handy cam he sets off to into the desert filled with curiosity. The three never finish their make shift documentary. Disappearing after they left their car on the desert edge, extensive searches by a small army of law enforcement turn up no clues. Were they I they in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it a fight over the girl? Or was it something otherworldly? “We didn’t find anything,” says a police officer involved in the search, “so who knows what happened. It’s hard to speculate.”
Twenty years later sister Sophie picks up the story, arriving in town with her ever- present camera. “What if Josh was on to something?” she says. “We always assumed he got lost or kidnapped or murdered. What if…” What if he got kidnapped by an alien? “I’m starting to sound like him,” she muses. When she finds Josh’s video camera, returned to the lost and found of the school he borrowed it from, more clues emerge.
As a genre found footage is showing it’s age. From the brilliant “Blair Witch Project” on it has been used, primarily in cheap-and-cheerful budget horror and sci fi films, to create a sense of urgency in a first person narrative. Trouble is, they’ve been done to death and their techniques don’t feel fresh anymore. At some point the screen will fill with static (check), the cast of unknowns will look panicked and confused (check), the protagonists will run, camera in hand, causing the picture to jiggle as though it was strapped to the back of a runaway horse (check), there will be Dr. Tongue-style close-ups (check) and the inevitable dropped camera freeze frame (check).
Despite the stylistic predictability “Phoenix Forgotten,” succeeds on several levels. Director Justin Barber has a nice ear for the rhythms of the character’s speech and draws good naturalistic performances from the cast of unknowns. The story doesn’t completely impress, and Barber takes way too long setting up the mystery, but the actors are engaging. He also does a nice job cutting together Sophie’s slick documentary footage with the grainy 1990s handy cam material.
“Phoenix Forgotten’s” mix of fact and fiction isn’t all that scary but Barber does whip up some intense and paranoid moments.