I have a blind spot for “found-footage” films. I almost called it a genre, but that wouldn’t be right. Like animation, found-footage could probably tell any type of story. Done well, they create an unsettling illusion of reality, and they’ve found a warm home in the horror/suspense camp. At its best, horror extrapolates our nightmares and daydreams, and Amber Alert goes the distance on a daydream more than a few drivers have probably had roaming the freeway.
The film begins with an admonition to create the illusion: what you’re about to see was admitted into evidence by the police the day after it was filmed. Two friends, Nathan and Samantha, with a little help from Samantha’s little brother, spend a day making an audition tape for their favorite reality show. Wired for action, they tour their favorite haunts, even Samantha’s workplace. On the road, headed to another location for filming, they spot a car with a license plate matching the one flashed across a freeway amber alert. At first, they do the logical thing and call the police. They do their best to follow the car at a distance, but the police are too many minutes away, separated by a growing number of miles.
The suspect car stops for gas; Nathan and Samantha park in an adjoining lot to keep tabs. Now, here’s where the movie lets you know it’s a contender. As soon as the driver of the car heads into the convenience store, Samantha rushes in for some quick recon. One of the car’s rear windows is open just a crack, and she sees a little girl asleep on the backseat. On the impulse of some very quick and creative thinking, Samantha remembers she’s wired, and tosses her mic in the car. Now they have an ear inside the car, and everything unfolds from that point in ways both expected and unexpected.
While the film hits a few familiar beats, it works in some clever surprises, each of which build on earlier set ups with admirable precision. A lag in the second act probably has more to do with an inherent pitfall of the found-footage gag. Everything has to look natural to pull off the illusion, and the film succeeds at this so well that Nathan and Samantha start to get a little petulant and annoying. In other words, they sound like ordinary people under duress.
Nothing in the first two acts looks overly rehearsed, except the pieces where Nathan and Samantha perform for the camera as part of their audition. Everything else looks natural, so much so that I want to believe the performers ad-libbed most of the film. Samantha’s little brother Caleb takes a literal back seat to most of the action, but the film puts him to good use. As cameraman, his voice only intrudes here and there to ask a question the audience needs answered, like why they keep filming. He’s a good conduit, and that small moment in particular provides some solid interior logic for the story, as well as a glimpse into how Samantha’s mind works.
Samantha emerges as the best thing about the film; a creative, determined heroine who has to struggle to pull her friend along with her. Nathan struggles with an number of insecurities, all of which linger under the surface until this crisis forces everyone to have to deal with them. He’s given many chances to muster his courage and fails at every single one of them. When the chips are down, though, Nathan finally forces himself to step up. By that point, however, we’re forced to wonder if things may have gone differently had he made the decision to man up a little earlier.
The final minutes resort to a bit of a cheat to manufacture suspense on top of what the film has already achieved. The film tries to give it a logical explanation, but it’s the only time the film switches from looking like something spontaneous to something crafted and manufactured. With a little tweaking, even one added line of dialog, it might have made more sense. As it is, it loses a small amount of well-established momentum leading up to ten final seconds that punch the wind right out of you.
Directed by Kerry Bellessa