“Stray Bullets” is pure indie filmmaking. The finished work is a testament to multi-hyphenate Jack Fessenden’s keen eye and technique. Fessenden not only wrote, directed and edited the film, but he also stars as Connor, classmate and confidant to Ash. It is also worth noting that he is only sixteen years old, or was at the time he made “Stray Bullets.” But while many an independent feature is built on the solid foundation of a would-be coveted screenplay, it is the writing that ultimately proves to be this project’s Achilles heel. Fessenden’s first attempt at writing to feature length has to hobble its way across the finish line.
Ash and Connor seem to be sneaking around someone’s property in the opening scene. Slipping inside somebody’s house, they start going through some packages. They check the contents, grab the boxes, and manage to sneak away without leaving a single packing peanut behind. The bounty? A paintball gun and a ton of ammunition.
There is a reason behind all of this secrecy, and it isn’t nearly as devious at it seems, but elaborating more would spoil the fun…and a future plot development. This stop is merely a detour as the two teenagers are on their way to clean out Ash’s father’s trailer so it could ‘possibly’ be sold. The paintball gun would merely provide some entertainment value during their walk, when they aren’t chatting up their local classmates and Connor isn’t quoting iconic 70’s films.
Meanwhile, three criminals are coping with the spoils of a deal gone wrong. The one silver lining: they make off with a briefcase, presumably full of cash. With one nursing a bullet wound and fading fast, the trio aren’t entirely sure where they are going and what their next move might be. To make matters worse, their getaway vehicle starts acting up. They find a quiet place in the woods to lay low and figure out a game plan. Unfortunately, it just so happens that the place they found is the same trailer that Ash and Connor are supposed to clean.
With a classic setup of impending confrontation in place, “Stray Bullets” inexplicably stalls once the boys happen upon the criminals in the trailer. Their friend and cohort is bleeding out, but the supposed brains of this crime mini-empire spends a lot of time sitting around not doing anything. This is only amplified by a sequence that aims to do little more than highlight a piece of the musical score. Shots cut to each of the criminals as they sit in the trailer, doing absolutely nothing. The film is quite short as is, so this reflective time-out seems ill-advised, and sort of like writer’s block manifesting itself onscreen.
The screenplay had a great premise locked and loaded, but much like its characters, it spins in circles for a spell, unsure of what to do next. From there, it retreats to an awkward foot chase that ends up traversing through a public park(of all places). This is clearly not Fessenden’s first filmmaking rodeo, but it is his first feature-length project. The screenplay betrays him of this fact as it simply appears to run out of gas, and it hobbles along to an 80-minute finish with barely the slightest climactic tremor.
“Stray Bullets” has some of the stunted acting seen in many an amateur film, and the scene where Ash and Connor run into a couple of their female classmates feels awkward from more than just the teenage angst. But this brief moment doesn’t derail the film, and the impressive cinematography(the film was shot by Jack’s father Larry, who also stars) and composition indicate that Fessenden clearly has talent. But “Stray Bullets” starts firing blindly once all the pawns arrive on the chess board that is the mobile home in the middle of the woods. Fessenden said he drew inspiration from Jeff Nichols’ “Mud(2010)”, but that thriller took its time to develop its characters; it could because the screenplay knew its destination. “Stray Bullets” has a similar aesthetic, but couldn’t emulate the well-rounded screenplay.