'Radioflash': Film Review

Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Midnight Release
An involving post-disaster survival story that flirts with exploitation-flick horror near the end.
11/15/2019

Brighton Sharbino and Dominic Monaghan try to get to safety after a massive blackout in Ben McPherson's survival story.

Set in the tense hours between a calamity and the societal breakdown it'll almost certainly cause, Ben McPherson's Radioflash begins as a visually rich, calmly serious take on apocalypse drama. It shifts by increments, eventually focusing on woman-in-peril material starring Brighton Sharbino (an old hand at end-of-the-world fiction after her childhood stint on The Walking Dead) and, perhaps unwisely, indulging a Hicksploitation leaning. While the latter theme clashes with its initial realism, the feature debut is more substantial than many survival tales like it and should get a small commercial bump from the presence of Dominic Monaghan as the heroine's father and Will Patton as her granddad.

The opening scene, an elaborate and expensive-looking escape room action sequence, is something of a non-sequitur, demonstrating the resourcefulness of teenage hero Reese (Sharbino) but also introducing tech-virtuoso themes that won't lead anywhere. Back home with her widowed father Chris (Monaghan), Reese is sounding like a computer prodigy when suddenly any gifts in that department become useless: An electromagnetic pulse fries the electric grid and communications across her unnamed Pacific Northwest hometown. We'll soon learn the entire Western U.S. has blacked out, surely due to an intentional attack.

Rigging a car battery up to a radio transmitter, she makes contact with her survivalist grandfather Frank (Patton). This is the day Frank has lived for, and he convinces Reese and Chris to gather what gas they can and get to his house in the mountains before highways are clogged with fearful city dwellers.

It's almost too late for that. Scenes at grocery stores and on long bridges frighteningly capture incipient bedlam, suggesting it's already unwise to assume a stranger won't attack you.

While it watches father and daughter get underway, the film seems more sure of itself in its characterization of Frank. He calmly takes the steps a doomsday-prepper would save for last — like breaking into a pharmacy and taking meds that don't have an infinite shelf life. (He avoids trouble with a fellow looter who's clearly seeking opioids, and leaves a note with payment for what he's taken at the register — "not that it'll be worth anything tomorrow.")

The landscapes Reese and Chris drive through are beautifully photographed (and usually blanketed in mist), and we interact with them much more intimately after a car wreck forces the two to travel on foot through the forest. An occasionally overwritten screenplay warns us of what they'll find in these mountains — people who are up to no good, even in normal times — and, after several more commonplace dangers, McPherson delivers on that promise.

Echoes of Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre color the last act, in which a reclusive matriarch known only as "Ma" extends some dubious hospitality to a young woman who might keep her feral son and grandson company. (In the part, Fionnula Flanagan proves you can't spell "ham" without the letters in her character's name.) If the dangers tilt toward the lurid, though, the film never quite loses sight of its endpoint or gives in to the horrors it threatens. Unsatisfyingly, it instead concludes with a tech-flavored shot that might hint at greater ambitions for what seems like a stand-alone adventure.

Production company: American Dream Labs
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Cast: Brighton Sharbino, Dominic Monaghan, Will Patton, Fionnula Flanagan, Miles Anderson, Michael Filipowich, Kyle Collin
Director-screenwriter: Ben McPherson
Producers: Rocco DeVilliers, Ben McPherson, Brad Skaar, Clay Vandiver
Director of photography: Austin F. Schmidt
Production designer: Susannah Lowber
Costume designer: Angela Hadnagy
Composer: Ramin Kousha
Casting director: Jeremy Zimmermann

102 minutes