A talented writer, David Ebeltoft, and some good onscreen talent make the film well worth the viewing time. Instead of portraying the stereotypical dead-end life in a small town, in Ebeltoft's hands Root Letter becomes a story of chance meeting, betrayal, grit, and hope.
The protagonist is Sarah, a high school Senior. She has a set of selfish, drug-pushing friends. Her childhood friend betrays her. A school buddy would like to have his relationship with Sarah go further, but he is painfully unable to speak of his affection. If this isn't enough to ruin a life, Sarah's mother is addicted to opioids and casual sex.
Sarah has a talent, writing. An assignment in her English class puts her in contact, randomly, with Carlos, living a state away and recovering from a beat down administered by his girlfriend's father. Sarah's letters become his life in recovery and his life after he is released and enters the dead-end job market.
Then, without explanation, the letters stop. A year goes by, and a frightening letter from Sarah causes him to pick up stakes and find out what happened. He discovers that she is missing.
The why of all this is revealed in flashbacks interspersed with Carlos's efforts to find Sarah. Nothing goes right. But accidentally uncovering who was responsible for a death in a house breaking gone bad results in Carlos himself being saved.
The editing is choppy, leading to some of the criticism I have seen about the film's structure. The critical scene at the trunk of the car is so quickly cut that the average viewer sees nothing. The flashbacks show that the scenes were shot (or could have been shot) with greater context, but they are inserted in such a way that sometimes a bruise on Carlos's cheek is the only indicator of the passage of time.
The director's choices are questionable sometimes. For example, why does she have Sarah smile at all? Her life is uniformly awful. The chipper scenes on the trunk of a car diminish the importance of Sarah's last, almost missed smile.
Danny Ramirez's performance of Carlos is flat which is disappointing in that he is the star-power of the peace. He did not bring his A-game. But a C-game doesn't ruin the show. Keana Marie's Sarah is not an award-winning performance either, but she is suitably young, suitably pissed off at her scummy friends and justly horrified and hopefully loving of her far-to-gone mother.
It's the supporting actors, Lydia Hearst and Breon Pugh that prop up the talent array here. Hearst's version of Sarah's Mom is realistic and a cautionary tale. Breon Pugh as Sarah's kind friend is vulnerable, scared to death of resisting his drug-dealing buddy and of telling Sarah about his feelings for her. These are good performances.
The production design is fine. It looks a little staged at times, but not distractingly so. The costume work is right-on.
So, with all these "not-so-greats" and a only a couple of well-deserved atta-boys for writing and supporting actors, why is this film a 9-star item?
It is an Indie film. As a rule, Indie films require the audience's attention. If you give Root letter your attention, it will reward you. If you lean back in your couch, popcorn in lap, expecting every storyline, every back story, every emotion to be handed to you on a platter (as some critics of the show seem to think is required); or if you require every nuance to be so clear that it isn't a nuance anymore, then you won't find much to like here.
The platter is plenty full in Root Letter. You just need to access it with your mind and, with the ending being what it is, with your heart too.