Humanity is about moments. It’s laid out in all directions waiting for you to react. The post-apocalyptic genre is exciting because it puts a magnifying glass on those moments in the face of a calamity. Would you share your last meds with a stranger? Would you kill someone if they posed a threat to your family? A director needs a deft touch to find the right balance between the calamity and the humanity of their protagonist. Director Ben McPherson, at times, has that touch, but unfortunately, an unimaginative script keeps Radioflash fumbling into the credits.

The start of the film places us in a danger room, not unlike something we might see in the Saw franchise. Our protagonist, Reese, who is played by Brighton Sharbino, is reminding herself to “focus on the solution, not the problem.” It’s a mantra Radioflash wants us to heed throughout the film. It’s not immediately clear what the solution is, but the current situation is death-defying. The entire sequence is striking and in theory, helps us learn who Reese is.

Who Reese is, is a gamer. She goes to eSport events, cosplays as Samus, and spends her time working on her video game. She lives with her father, played by Dominic Monaghan. We get a sense that Reese and her dad speak freely; it’s a nice break from the norm in most films. While it’s always tempting to create tension between a child and parent, Radioflash undermines that with an open dialog about Reese’s dead mother, and it’s refreshing.

A director needs a deft touch to find the right balance between calamity and humanity.

After the radioflash hits, the two of them decide to trek to the mountains to find Reese’s grandfather. He’s a doomsday prepper, and according to him, there is no safer place to be right now. This is when Radioflash settles in nicely. It subverts genre tropes to great effect. A subdued drugstore confrontation comes to mind. A scene usually gripped in panic surprises with a touch of humanity. We see a darker side of the human experience too. McPherson’s light touch works through a particularly exciting sequence in the second act. It gives us a glimpse into the drastic lengths some would go to in order to survive. Radioflash seems comfortable in this place; if only it stood there longer.

Radioflash’s strength is its tempered look into humanity. Even when it attempts to get bombastic, it feels grounded in reality. Because of these measured actions and reactions, some motivations are under-explained. This fits well into the framework of the film. Just like real life, people come and go, and we have only our experience to rely on. In this way, Radioflash succeeds. 

We tread into well-worn territory.

There is also something to be said about how Radioflash regards Reese. More particularly, her age. The story treats Reese’s youth as a virtue. She thinks different because of her age. She sees solutions, whereas others see problems. Falling back to her mantra works well here. I only wish we saw more of it. 

My main critique of Radioflash is that it doesn’t take its situations far enough. It feels like McPherson is holding back on pushing some events to their logical conclusions. Some of the performances in Radioflash can also be called uneven. An early scene with Sharbino about her mother feels stilted. It’s not enough to break the illusion, but the emotional resonance is incumbent on their bond. Sharbino does get better as the film wears on, and her supporting cast is replete with industry veterans that help sell the scene.  

The third act of Radioflash may split the crowd. After heavy foreshadowing about mountain folk, and wondering aloud why anyone would live out there, we tread into well-worn territory. There’s a safety present in this act that we didn’t see in the second. This results in a plodding chase sequence that peaks with a finale that fails to wash over me.

These missteps are what complicate my feeling toward Radioflash. The film has a compelling message to get across. It wants to speak on how unprepared we are for a catastrophe, or how society views our youth. It hints at these issues in smart ways but never fully commits to them, leaving the experience feeling hollow.

Radioflash hits theaters and VOD November 15, 2019