Today for our review we have an indie thriller based on a bestselling novel, titled Saving Zoe. Now, all of us should be so lucky to be able to adapt a popular novel into a screenplay (and make the big bucks while doing it!) but, of course, rights are expensive and even the best adaptations take time and usually have several writers involved at various stages as the project evolves from script to screen.

As for this particular story, it reminded me in many ways of a teenage Gone Girl – a dark piece with lots of twists and mystery surrounding the murder of our lead character’s sister, Zoe.

The film opens with Echo (I have to interject here, because there is no way her birth name was Echo, but everyone in the film calls her that. I mean, it must be a nickname, right? But how did they get that nickname?) Anyway, what I wanted to say about this is that I am sure it is explained in the book, but here they just keep moving right along with no explanation for the audience.

I actually liked this a lot – besides the OCD side of myself that couldn’t figure out what combination of names gets you to Echo – because we don’t get a painful exposition scene explaining it or a lazy voiceover. This is something that we should consider as writers: how to place as little exposition as possible into our script. Not saying that this is the right way to do it, but it is an interesting example nonetheless.

Anyway, we start by meeting Echo, a teenage girl getting ready for her first day of high school. Echo is played by Lauren Marano, a former Disney Channel star who I am glad to see get a chance to really show some of her acting talent in this dramatic role.

Echo talks to her sister, Zoe (strangely enough, played by Laura Marano’s real-life sister, Vanessa Marano) about how nervous she is about her first day of school. Zoe reassures her as the two ride the bus together and then Zoe leads Echo through the halls to her classes… until Echo makes a comment about how much she misses her sister and… Zoe disappears, because she was never really there.

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This is only about six or seven minutes into the film, but I liked this a lot. It was a good way to visually show Echo trying to process the grief and it kept me, as a viewer, interested to find out what happened to her sister.

As the school day goes on, we are introduced to our suspects:

Parker – The guy who is strangely obsessed with Echo and may know more than he is letting on.

Carly – The druggie who acts guilty and like she is somehow responsible for Zoe’s death (the actress, Giorgia Whigham, was also in Scream Season 3!)

Marc – The jock that everyone thought was guilty because they found Zoe’s body in his car, but who was cleared by the police.

Abby – Echo’s needy best-friend.

What I liked here is that, for most of the set-up, we don’t know exactly what happened to Zoe. We assume that she died (and that’s confirmed after about 10 minutes) but no one ever says exactly what happened to her and we are introduced to the facts of the case slowly. This is good because it builds suspense and leaves the audience on the edge of their seats, wanting answers.

Echo finds Zoe’s diary in Marc’s car and, determined to get answers and catch the killer, begins to read, looking for clues. As she does, secrets are revealed and Echo learns that Zoe had a dark side and that she didn’t really know her sister.

Now that might sound a little cliche, but what they do with this is interesting: as Echo reads Zoe’s diary, we get to see the events she is describing played out and learn more and more about what caused Zoe’s murder.

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The filmmakers play with our expectations as they do this – as Zoe is potentially an unreliable narrator and Echo is our unassuming surrogate, completely taken with her heroic big sister, but slowly coming to the realization that maybe Zoe wasn’t a superhero and, in fact, was more human than Echo would like to admit.

I really like the way that this is filmed – as I said, Zoe is our unreliable narrator, and every one of her scenes is bathed in a tint that is literally “rose-colored” while Echo’s reality is washed out and grey.

Acting-wise, Lauren Marano does a really good job as the innocent sister who has her reality shattered as the film goes on, but in terms of acting, the standout here is Vanessa Marano. With her ominous voiceover playing as Echo reads her diary and her great screen presence, she steals the show, very similar to how Rosamund Pike commanded each scene in Gone Girl.

The one actor who seems out of place here is Ken Jeong, who plays Echo’s therapist. He is kind of our exposition character and, honestly, I feel like his entire character could have been totally removed and the pacing would have been better because of it. Now, to be fair, I did like that Zoe used to work for him, as that adds him to our suspect list and keeps the characters and story pretty tightly connected.

… But, I kept waiting for Mr. Chow to say, “Suck on these little Chinese nuts!

The film drags a bit in the middle as Echo keeps flipping the pages of Zoe’s diary looking for answers and discovering… a lot about her relationship with Marc… which wasn’t very interesting to me.

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We already know that Marc has been cleared of the murder (of course, there are still lots of questions as to how much he knew or how involved he was) but it seemed like Echo was only looking at Marc as the main suspect for a majority of the film.

Now, from a character perspective, this is understandable: he is the most likely suspect and the one with the most evidence against him, so of course she would look there, but from a story perspective it had me wanting them to move on to other suspects and keep introducing red-herrings for us to consider.

While this film gets extremely dark in the third act, I wish that they had really embraced this and shown us more of Zoe’s dark side and the bleak reality that she was living in. It would have made the final third of the film not feel so jarring and it could have really offered some surprises.

We do have torture, murder, drugs, sex, death and lies, but I feel like they could have really explored a darker part of Echo’s psyche as she tried to process and accept her sister’s untimely death.

I am not talking about the complete nihilism of Gone Girl and the story was not sanitized by any means, but I feel like it could have taken some cues from some of the other, similar thrillers and raised the stakes a bit, especially with the Echo character, as her arc could have been much deeper and more complete.

My description of the plot here is intentionally vague because I am trying not to give anything away and keep the film’s mysteries intact for anyone who wants to check this one out for themselves.

To continue with the story, as Echo nears the end of Zoe’s diary, she learns that Zoe had gotten involved with some very shady characters, such as Jason, a drug dealer who preys on high school students by buying them beer and drugs and has his own hidden demons.

My biggest issue was that it takes over an hour into an hour and a half film for Echo to do any actual detective work. She reads Zoe’s diary, yes, but in terms of being an active character and really doing any investigation into her sister’s murder, it takes far too long for Echo to get to the point that she is ready to start looking.

I won’t say too much more, as to say any more would give a lot away about the hidden character motivations, secrets and reveals, but just know that this film does get very dark, very quickly and explores some very bleak material – much like the Nicolas Cage film 8MM.

When all is said and done, the reveal of what actually happened to Zoe and why it happened doesn’t feel totally earned or fully explored. This is only an hour and a half film and I really feel like it could have done with at least another 20 minutes and a couple more reveals and twists.

This is part of the challenge of adapting a novel – you have 90 to 100 screenplay pages to distill a potentially two or three hundred page novel into. Some things will inevitably get lost, but I do feel like a little more time spent with the characters and in this world would have done the film, the characters and the story good.

Also, I feel like the theme of the film gets muddled with the ending. I can’t say much without giving things away, but it just felt like there were a lot of ideas for where the story was going to go, but they just kind of end without a real resolution to many of the ideas or themes presented in the film.

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Ultimately, I would say that there is a lot to like here: the performances are great all around, the story is not afraid to get very dark and I love the way it is shot, but I feel like the story both dragged and wasn’t long enough to effectively tell the tale that it needed to.

That said, I would say that if you are writing a similar high-school-centric thriller/mystery feature this one is worth a RENT, if only to compare notes and think about how you would structure this story.

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