Major allowances would normally be made for any movie made by a 16-year-old. But in the case of “Stray Bullets,” a polished first feature from teenager Jack Fessenden, fairly minor ones will suffice. Though this suspense drama about two small-town youths who run afoul of fleeing big-city criminals feels a couple story beats short of a satisfying whole, it’s admirably well-crafted within its mostly savvy limitations. The film opens Feb. 10 in 11 U.S. cities.
Fessenden is the son of actor-turned-busy indie producer and sometime writer/director Larry Fessenden (“The Last Winter,” “Wendigo”), who not only plays an onscreen role here but serves as DP. It’s also dad’s connections that doubtless coaxed a number of veteran performers he’s worked with in the past to join the project, and none of them treat this assignment as a favor-among-friends lark.
Ash (Asa Spurlock) and Connor (the junior Fessenden) are teen besties aimlessly kicking around their sleepy upstate New York neighborhood on a summer’s day — one somewhat enlivened when they get their hands on a paintball gun. Unknown to them, heading their way with some very real guns are three middle-aged hoodlums on the run from a job gone bloodily wrong in Brooklyn. Now driving north in a vintage Dodge Dart are the badly wounded Charlie (Fessenden Sr.), stammering nice-guy Dutch (John Speredakos) and not-at-all-nice Cody (James Le Gros).
While Charlie has been the group’s boss for more than 20 years, his increasingly desperate condition allows hot-tempered Cody to seize the reins. When their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, the trio have to decide what to do — including whether to risk getting medical help for Charlie — and opinions among them sharply differ. Thus when the two boys reluctantly show up at a trashed trailer home that Ash’s father (Robert Burke Warren as JT) has tasked them with cleaning, they discover it already has some visitors — armed and dangerous ones not at all happy to have additional company.
It’s at this midpoint, when the young protagonists are taken captive, that the film gets more interesting, even as it begins to fall short of its potential. “Stray Bullets” was conceived as a half-hour short, and by its underwhelming fade-out, it becomes apparent that the young Fessenden didn’t develop his ideas quite enough to sustain a full-length feature. The hostage situation is compelling, but apart from one jolting moment, it doesn’t create as much tension or unpredictability as one might hope for. The most notable narrative twist — revealing that one small-town character here has a preexisting relationship with the fugitives — comes late and raises many intriguing questions, virtually none of which are answered. The film swiftly shifts into an action mode, then abruptly ends after a semi-successful stab at a stylized-shootout climax.
The teen leads are OK, but they’re not given enough character detail considering the amount of time we spend with them before the plot turns. (In particular, their relationship with their parents — and JT’s relationships with everybody — are implied sources of conflict that are given no further attention.) The adult performers, who also include Kevin Corrigan as a pursuing hitman, do a better job filling in the blanks of otherwise stock characters. Pa Fessenden is particularly good as a figure whose scrappy, sardonic personality is only amplified by excruciating pain and looming mortality. He also does a fine job with the widescreen lensing, his first feature DP gig since some very early noncommercial directorial projects in the 1980s.
Indeed, “Stray Bullets” is so nicely turned in its technical and design departments — including the young writer/director’s original score — that the ultimately somewhat undernourished scenario feels like more of a minor letdown than a major failing, with a result that is confidently entertaining if unmemorable. Clearly, anyone who can pull this much off at 16 (Fessenden’s age when the film was shot) has a promising future ahead of them.