2023, PG-13, 80 min. Directed by Nick Lyon, Peter Facinelli. Starring Peter Facinelli, Fiona Dourif, Asher Angel, Ashlei Foushee, Lance Henriksen.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Sept. 29, 2023
Over the past few years, a record number of Californians have come to call Austin home. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before Central Texas would serve as a stand-in for the Golden State onscreen. In On Fire, a new film directed by Nick Lyon and Peter Facinelli (Twilight), we follow one family’s desperate escape from raging wildfires along the California coastline. Considering both areas’ deadly history with forest fires, perhaps it’s a more fitting tribute than we care to admit.
Dave Laughlin (Facinelli) is a self-employed contractor teetering on the edge of financial ruin. With a baby on the way – his wife, Sarah (Dourif), is eight months pregnant – and a live-in parent who has given up on life (Henriksen), it takes everything Dave has just to keep his family above water. But when embers from a nearby forest fire set their home ablaze, Dave and his son (Angel) must plan a dangerous escape through the California hillside before the raging fires cut off every path to escape.
To its credit, On Fire is a valiant exercise in stock footage. Fire feels like a particularly tricky digital effect; even the smallest flame casts shadows in unpredictable directions and sits somewhere between translucence and opacity. Unsurprisingly, many of the film’s biggest sequences struggle to overcome the composite nature of its effects. When On Fire can get away with stock and second-unit photography – allowing the conflagration to lurk offscreen through newsreel and social media footage – the film gives itself the room it needs to operate.
But strip away the uneven disaster elements, and you’re left without much to sink your teeth into as an audience. Each actor puts in a solid effort as a middle-class family – Fiona Dourif is surely the only actor to play both a pregnant woman and her own father in the same 12-month span – but the Laughlins are mere window dressing for disaster. Once the flames pour in, most of the conversations are reduced to reactionary shouts – including one ill-advised bit of scripting where Angel’s teenage son tells a raging forest fire to go … well, you can guess the rest.
With several nods to religious audiences, On Fire is not explicitly a faith-based film, but its characters are not above the occasional prayer. Instead, Lyon and Facinelli’s film seems structured to appeal to the widest possible cross-section of SVOD audiences. Certainly, others have done far worse with far more, but disaster movies that treat themselves this seriously with severe technical limitations have only the slimmest margins for error. On Fire does the best it can with what it has. It’s still not enough to move the needle.