Some things are just a rite of passage for teenage boys, like their first hostage crisis. Frankly, sixteen-year-old (at the time of production) Jack Fessenden looks far too young to have experienced his first standoff with desperate fugitives, but as the son of fan favorite horror actor-director Larry Fessenden, he has probably spent so much time on film shoots, his directorial debut was almost overdue. Of course, he got a few assists from his father, who served as cinematographer and co-star of his son’s Stray Bullets (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
It is summer, so Ash and Connor would like to just fart around with a paintball gun and flirt (awkwardly) with girls. Connor would be entitled to the day off, since he works for real at the local garage. Yet, he has agreed to help Ash (a stranger to productive employment) clean out the family’s camper in the woods, at his father’s request.
Meanwhile, in the nearest crime-ridden big city, a trio of low-life crooks are biting off more than they can chew. They intended to rob a gangster they had previously done business with, but they did not expect him to be so ornery and well-armed. Needless to say, it is not a clean getaway. In fact, it will not be a getaway at all for the slowly expiring Charlie (played by Fessenden père), unless he gets medical treatment soon. Naturally, they will hole up in the very camper the lads are supposed to clean.
Sixteen is disgustingly young, even by the standards of the silent era, but J. Fessenden’s instincts are right on target. Rather than trying to be hipper than hip, he dials the film down to a level of earthy honesty. In fact, Fessenden’s hand only gets heavy in the closing moments, when he feels it necessary to beat us over the head with the title’s meaning. Presumably, he has seen most if not all of the thirty-seven thousand films his dad has appeared in, but we might hazard a guess that Kelly Reichardt’s recently restored River of Grass held the greatest influential sway over Stray. Both films have a pungent, tactile sense of place and to varying degrees, they de-emphasize the crime drama (presented almost tangentially in River) for the sake of character development.
Young Fessenden is also pretty solid as responsible Connor and his father is terrific as bleeding-out Charlie. Granted, most of his screen time is spent in the backseat of the getaway car, but that still afforded him greater range of movement than what he had in Dan Berk & Robert Olsen’s Body. Asa Spurlock us a bit cringy as Ash, but it is always a kick to watch seasoned pros like James Le Gros and Kevin Corrigan do their thing as the unstable getaway driver and the hitman chasing after them.
Stray Bullets should absolutely not get dismissed as a vanity production or a manifestation of misplaced parental enthusiasm. Even if you see a lot of genre films over the course of a month it still holds up quite well. Recommended for those who appreciate crime drama with coming-of-age resonance, Stray Bullets opens this Friday (2/10) in New York, at the Village East.