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In most instances, a filmmaker’s age is irrelevant when discussing the merits of their work, but it’s impossible to view Jack Fessenden’s Stray Bullets with detached objectivity when aware he was 15 years old during the shooting and 16 when the film bowed to ticket-buyers. An enjoyably blood-soaked thriller with unexpectedly lyrical interludes — made very much in the shadow of classic genre forebears and on what was clearly a constrained budget — this is a strikingly impressive calling-card.
It’s a mark of Fessenden’s freakish precocity that the picture would doubtless secure numerous midnight-slot festival bookings and additional small-screen exposure even if programmers and buyers knew nothing of his extreme youth. As it is, the film has a unique marketing hook which will doubtless be exploited to the max by Fessenden’s dad Larry, a very shrewd operator with decades of indie-biz experience under his belt. Its North American premiere is scheduled for the Woodstock Film Festival next month in upstate New York, close to where most of the shooting took place.
Guinness World Records lists Nepalese 7-year-old Saugat Bista as the globe’s youngest feature-director, but Fessenden appears to be unchallenged in terms of the English-speaking world. Starting early is clearly in the genes: The elder Fessenden also was 16 when he made his first film, the four-minute Super 8 road-movie The Eliminator (1979). Barely seen until released on a compilation DVD decades later, this was a shaky first step on a busily prolific career that has included acting jobs for Martin Scorsese, Kelly Reichardt, Joe Swanberg and many others, plus numerous outings as director and/or producer.
He plays an eye-catching supporting role and serves as DP here, with his wife Beck Underwood overseeing production design and costumes. Their offspring, however, receives sole credit for directing, writing, editing and for composing and arranging the atmospheric score (performing keyboards, guitar and percussion) and is even listed among the production’s five chefs. Yes, Jack cooks, too.
Fessenden, who has been honing his craft on shorts for several years and appeared in his dad’s Wendigo (2001) and The Last Winter (2006) as a tot, is clearly more than capable on all creative fronts — even if his acting chops currently fall a little short of his behind-the-camera talents. But that isn’t much distraction, as his connections have landed him a slew of hugely experienced character-actors, including top-billed James Le Gros and the more fleetingly glimpsed Kevin Corrigan.
Among the fresher faces, Asa Spurlock — who bears a striking resemblance to Ezra Miller — is the standout as Ash, a soft-spoken and sensitive sort who spends most of his free time with his brasher best pal Connor (Jack Fessenden). After larking around in the woods near their home in an unspecified corner of rural upstate New York, the duo stumble into the clutches of three desperate gangsters. The criminals (Le Gros, Larry Fessenden and John Speredakos) have fled New York City in the messy wake of a shootout, with an implacable hitman (Corrigan) close on their heels.
Fessenden switches smoothly back and forth between Ash and Connor’s bucolic escapades with a stolen paintball gun and the gangsters’ profanity-laced exchanges in their speeding car as the elder Fessenden‘s Charlie bleeds out on the back seat. Innocence and experience duly collide in the second half, but the screenplay delivers a few nicely unexpected developments — including one seriously shattering left-field jolt — in a film which foregrounds character and dialogue ahead of slam-bang pyrotechnics. When push comes to shove in the final reel, however, the helmer stages the inevitable gunplay with persuasive brio — aided by special makeup effects by seasoned maestro Brian Spears.
Leaping far beyond the occasional rough edges of his opening scenes, the filmmaker really hits his stride in these latter stages, deploying slow-motion in a mature, sparing fashion and making particularly effective use of his own haunting, guitar-heavy score. Indeed, on this evidence, Fessenden could probably pursue a career in music if the challenge of filmmaking palls. Anyone invested in the art form’s future, however, will firmly hope he can go on to emulate the likes of Don Coscarelli and Xavier Dolan, for whom teenage kicks augured accurately for achievements to come.
Venue: Oldenburg Film Festival (Independent Competition)
Production company: Fessypix
Cast: Asa Spurlock, Jack Fessenden, John Speredakos, Larry Fessenden, James Le Gros, Kevin Corrigan, Robert Burke Warren
Director-screenwriter-editor-composer: Jack Fessenden
Producers: Jack Fessenden, Larry Fessenden, Beck Underwood
Cinematographer: Larry Fessenden
Production designer-costume designer: Beck Underwood
Sales: Glass Eye Pix
Not rated, 83 minutes
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