Directorial debuts often prove to be some of my favorite movies. There's something truly exciting about seeing a new and upcoming talent, and it generally manages to strike a solid chord with me. Over the past few years, I have made it a mission to keep first-time directors on my radar in the hopes of finding someone new to follow. More often than not, these movies come from filmmakers in their twenties and thirties, but once in a blue moon, we can find someone that predates them all. That's the case with Jack Fessenden, the teenage director of Stray Bullets.
The film follows Ash (Asa Spurlock) and Connor (Fessenden), two friends making their way into the woods across town to clean out Ash's father's trailer. Upon reaching their destination, however, the find that a trio of thieves on the run has taken to hiding. Cody (James Le Gros) and Dutch (John Speredakos) quickly take the boys hostage in the midst of fretting over their boss Charlie's (Larry Fessenden) mortal injuries. Ash and Connor soon learn that the men's car has broken down, leaving them stranded in the middle of the woods. In the hopes of ensuring their safety, the boys offer their assistance in acquiring medical and mechanical supplies to aid the gang in their getaway.
I gravitate towards directorial debuts for a few reasons. First, they give an audience the chance to see an unknown artist experiment with their own personal style. So many seasoned directors fall into their set routines which makes new takes all the more exciting. While Fessenden isn't necessarily bringing anything new to the table with Stray Bullets, he definitely exudes a clear confidence behind the camera; you would simply never believe that a sixteen-year-old directed this flick. Jack grew up on film sets with his father and learned from him first-hand. With that kind of background and personal education, I believe that Jack may just be getting his feet wet with this one.
The kid does need a little bit of work in his writing. Oftentimes we see feature debut directors working with their own screenplay, and the same goes for Stray Bullets. So many of these feature debuts are passion projects for the filmmakers, and when everything clicks, we can see the passion ooze off the screen. Unfortunately, I think Fessenden's age shows glaringly in some of this script's miscues. While there's a great skeleton of a story here, it just doesn't have the meat on its bones to be a fully-fleshed experience. The story itself proves rightfully simple, but the lack of depth and overall clarity raise a few red flags along the way. We get a few scenes that stray from the storyline that almost feel like an attempted subplot that was never fully realized; with a scant eighty-three minute runtime, I still felt that those particular scenes could have been left on the cutting room floor. I think that Fessenden will be learn and craft his writing with time, but this is still a valiant effort for a first-time writer.
The cast does a decent job keeping pace and pulling what they can from the muddled screenplay. Young Jack and Asa Spurlock prove to be the weaker elements of the cast, but their adult counterparts aren't exactly revelations either. The elder Fessenden hams it up as the mortally-wounded leader of the gang, and he's flanked by the semi-convincing badass Cody (Le Gros) and the somewhat dimwitted Dutch (Speredakos). Although the individual performances don't amaze, their chemistry works. We're given a look at the aftermath of a heist gone wrong, and we do see the characters begin to flesh out enough to make us care about them by film's end. Truthfully, the story revolves around the trio rather than their teenage counterparts who just happen upon the situation and prove to be observers more than anything else.
Ultimately, Stray Bullets proves to be a flawed but fine debut for this young director. Teenage directors don't come along all that often - the first one that comes to mind is Emily Hagin's low-budget zombie flick Pathogen - but what they lack in experience their certainly make up for in passion. I can't quite say that Stray Bullets has flashes of brilliance, but a lot should be said about Jack Fessenden's skill behind the camera. This may not be the best movie, but it certainly gives me hope for Fessenden's future.