When most think of indie films, they think of something like The Peanut Butter Falcon, Room, or Overcomer. They think of One Cut of the Dead or Tigers Are Not Afraid. They think of It Follows or Swiss Army Man. Compared to films like The Bestowal, 3 Lives, Luke & Jo, Enthusiastic Sinners, or Silhouette, each of the previously mentioned indies seem like blockbusters. The point? That independent films come in all shapes and sizes and they each offer something unique to a viewer willing to take their chances on something less mainstream. Hitting digital services on June 16th ahead of the physical release July 14th is the family film Hidden Orchard Mysteries: The Case of the Air B&B Robbery from director Brain Shackelford (The Color of Medicine: The Story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital), a mostly light-hearted whodunit whose twists and turns feel like a toned-down version of something that would run on Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?
In the small community of Hidden Orchard, a robbery of a new Air B&B creates quite a stir so great that bored best friends Lulu (Ja’ness Tate) and Gabby (Gabriella Pastore) decide to use the start of their summer break to investigate. Lulu knows that everyone in their neighborhood has something to hide, but it’s what she doesn’t know that leads she and Gabby into a situation way above their pay grade.
First things first, while Hidden Orchard Mysteries is advertised as a family film, be advised there’s some low-grade cursing throughout. This doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but not all families feel that way and may take issue with their kids hearing some “damns” and “hells” from a variety of characters. This doesn’t include the lead characters Lulu and Gabby, but some of the supporting characters around them do speak with a looser tongue. On a more technical note, and it’s hard to tell if this is an issue with actor performance or the script by Shackelford or story by Joyce Fitzpatrick (The Color of Medicine: The Story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital), but many of the adults speak in a manner of people trying to speak a certain way. Like if I were to say “that’s lit,” an uproarious laughter would ensue as it would induce quite a bit of cringe. Such is the case with several of the characters who don’t appear comfortable with the words coming out of their mouths. Considering Hidden Orchard Mysteries is intended for families, the stilted delivery and uncomfortable dialogue may be intentional, akin to a verbal form of slapstick for younger audiences to giggle at. There are also scenes shot from strange angles in providing coverage of the actors, as well as scenes where the leads seem to contradict their own previous statements. As for the story itself, the details unveiled through the course of the narrative don’t quite seem to match the crime but possesses a rather outlandish ending that matches the growing larger-than-life feel of the story. Taking all of these things into consideration, the whole of Hidden Orchard Mysteries is a bit of a mixed bag that will either bore and offend you or thrill and amuse you.
Working in its favor are performances from four specific members of the cast: Tate, Pastore, Carlos Coleman, and Catarah Hampshire. The first two are the leads of the film and are constantly engaging as their on-screen chemistry beautifully conveys the close-knit relationship we are to believe they have. As written, the characters constantly back each other up on their plays, are quick and clever under pressure, and possess the kind of thoughtless recklessness that youth is packed with. That last bit allows the narrative as a whole to create situations of conflict in the case naturally and effectively, finding new ways to send the characters back to square one. As the heart and soul of the film, the performances from Tate and Pastore create a foundation for the stranger parts of Hidden Orchard Mysteries to build off of and return. In their roles individually and as a team, Tate and Pastore have the makings of a proper cinematic duo: full of charisma, positivity, and juvenile charm. In supporting roles that appear late into the film, Coleman and Hampshire play the married owners of a cupcake store who help break the case wide open for the two budding sleuths. The addition of Coleman’s and Hampshire’s characters not only helps refocus the narrative, but the enthusiasm from the actors infuses the film with a greater dose of energy, as well. If pressed to analogize Coleman’s performance, his is similar to something you’d get from comedian Ron Funches and Hidden Orchard Mysteries benefits from it greatly. Coleman is positively hilarious, inserting some freshness into a story that is growing a little stagnant and, as a scene partner, Hampshire matches him flawlessly. In their few scenes together, Coleman and Hampshire are convincing as a married couple who also run a company together, meaning that the two can read each other incredibly well. In truth, the best parts of Hidden Orchard Mysteries is when there are couples working together. These scenes radiate positivity and wholesomeness in a way that amplifies the message of communication and support a family film aims for.
There are a wide range of family entertainment options that can be found on a variety of streaming services or on-demand providers. At this point, there’s basically a glut of content. If you want something mostly light-hearted that will keep your kids entertained for 90 minutes and maybe even give them an appreciation for trust and open communication, Hidden Orchard Mysteries is a pretty safe bet. Just keep in mind that, like most indies, what you see on screen is made by people doing the best they can with what they have. So while it will look like an after-school special running on Nickelodeon before the primetime programming starts, and it kind of is, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Big budgets don’t equate to strong storytelling. Sometimes it’s just about seeing where an adventure takes you.
Available on VOD and digital June 16th, 2020.
Available on DVD July 14th, 2020.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.