17-year-old filmmaker Jack Fessenden’s directorial debut isn’t just significantly better than what you’d expect from a 17-year-old’s directorial debut, it’s also one of the most intense films to be released thus far in 2017. Mixing familial drama with grim thrills, Stray Bullets finds teenagers Connor (Fessenden) and Ash (Asa Spurlock) head into the woods to clean out a mobile home belonging to Ash’s father, only to discover that it has been taken over by three criminals (James Le Gros, John Speredakos, and Fessenden’s real-life father, Larry).
But instead of a fast-paced shoot-’em-up, Stray Bullets is a methodical character study about the relationships between adolescents and adults, between children and their parents, between employers and employees, and between citizens and their community. Much of the running time is dedicated to watching Connor and Ash stroll around town, taking their sweet time to get to their destination. They stop to flirt with some girls, fire some paintball guns, and other forms of relatively harmless fun. Meanwhile, the trio of crooks anxiously travels toward the mobile home in sheer desperation. The juxtaposition is obvious but intriguing nonetheless, especially due to where the film eventually ends up.
Though his filmmaking style is a far cry from that of his father, the subtly moral nature of Jack Fessenden’s debut is wholly reminiscent of Wendigo and No Telling. If there’s one thing that Stray Bullets has in spades, it’s a strong voice — and the film isn’t afraid to die by its own sword. Thankfully, the film actually works quite well. Fessenden takes his time building tension and allowing the characters to develop, but it’s not a boring film by any means. Punchy dialogue and a few moments of levity keep the pacing relatively tight.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Stray Bullets, though, is the fact that it feels extremely violent without ever becoming all that violent. Utilizing dread and suspense the way most other crime thrillers would use shootouts and car chases, the film comes across as being extremely graphic, but it actually isn’t. While there’s a decent-sized body count for such a small cast, the onscreen deaths appear intentionally tame.
It’s possible that this is the case in order to market the film to a wider audience, but that seems unlikely. It feels much more like a creative decision in order to help shape the film’s peculiar tone. See, much like his charming protagonists, Fessenden approaches increasingly harsh subject matters with wide-eyed optimism. As intense and dangerous as the situations in Stray Bullets become for both Connor and Ash, there’s an overwhelming sense of hope present in the film that you rarely see in gritty, independent cinema, and it miraculously never comes across as being tacky.
Falling somewhere between arthouse drama and genre cinema, Stray Bullets is a deceptively bold film and as good a directorial debut as I’ve seen lately. It’s now evident that ambitiousness runs in the Fessenden family, and it’s going to be very interesting to see where Jack goes from here.
Stray Bullets hits theaters and VOD February 10th.