[walking past her]
Yeah, I heard she was born in a bar.
You could shake your knuckles at the sky. You could get mad and say, "I don't got nothing." You could get stuck.
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Derick Martini, whose promise was richly manifested in Lymelife (2009), now gives us a film of poetic if unnerving beauty. Hick's plot is as old as literature—the exploits of a young hero who leaves familiar places to encounter and then overcome terrifying obstacles. It is also the story that lies at the heart of America and a coming-of-age parable suited to our times. The Wizard of Oz featured Dorothy; Hick features Luli McMullen, a 13-year old Nebraska girl who trades the boredom of her Midwestern town and tortured parents lost in alcohol for excitement along the road to Las Vegas, where she hopes to find a sugar-daddy. Based on the best-selling novel by Andrea Portes, who also wrote the film's script, Hick is a courageous statement about the power of will; a reminder that very young girls can be daring and sensual but also thoughtful and ultimately wise.
The film begins with a bang. At the party marking her thirteenth birthday, Luli receives a 45 Smith & Wesson as a present from her uncle. This makes for a jaw-dropping moment funny, deeply sad, and fraught with peril—three elements that distinguish the film as a whole. Luli uses the gun to channel Dirty Harry in front of a mirror. When she stands in her underwear, alone in her bedroom, pointing the weapon at her own image—"Do you feel lucky, punk; well, do ya?"—we suspect, Toto, this is uncharted territory. Luli is an about-to-blossom new icon—a girl to whom gender is incidental, a child-woman with a practical understanding of her body and a dogged determination to survive. She is as vulnerable as she is ready to kick butt.
Luli embodies the yearnings of youth and the heavy burdens of childhood. She is an artist who draws exquisite, longing images of her little brother who was born blue and refused to stay in the world. She has a sharp eye and a wicked tongue but the rumbling in her head is that of an old spirit. Luli has always had to take care of herself and, so far, she has had more losses than gains. She has every reason to be bitter but she chooses hope instead. She's a can-do girl for the New Millennium. We believe her when she declares, "I got something that's gonna throw me straight into the sun." Hick, the novel, was widely praised for its economy of style and the beauty of its language. Those virtues have been preserved in the film.
Along the yellow brick road that connects her past and her future, Luli—recreated by the talented Chlöe Grace Moretz—encounters Eddie, a broken spirit trapped in a broken body. As portrayed by Eddie Redmayne in an award-deserving performance, Eddie Kreezer is a young nobody with a limp, the result of his failed career as a rodeo artist. He appears innocuous but evolves into the epitome of obsession, aiming to use Luli as a toy, an object to suit his desires. On the road to Las Vegas Luli also meets Glenda—played with wit and intelligence by Blake Lively—a grifter who becomes the girl's guide and mentor. Like other fairy godmothers, Glenda is beautiful, impetuous, and manipulative. This one also snorts coke and cons men. She lures Luli into a series of deceptions that are as troubling as they are hilarious. In the end, Luli must escape the wiles of both Eddie the monster and Glenda the calculating witch to surface on the other side of the road where the world of promise and reconfigured goals is waiting. She faces violence and near death, as all heroes must, in her pursuit of a new freedom. What is wonderful about Luli is that she keeps moving forward no matter how broken her heart is. Towards the end of her adventure she considers going back home only to discover that home is no longer there—it has been taken over by Wal Mart.
This too is significant. Hick is Luli's story but also a recounting of the way in which the American landscape has been savagely changed by commercial interests. Like Luli, nature grapples with abuse. As she travels west, the young heroine celebrates the vistas before her and wryly laments the misuse of the land. But there is still poetry in that land. Director Martini deftly portrays the breathtaking amplitude of the American countryside with its luscious fields and endless skies. Ordinary diners and motels become in his hands places where magic can happen even to a runaway girl. Rarely has the forlorn beauty of neglected neon strips and lost main streets been captured so well. Trucks and cars, like those a failed cowboy might favor, have never looked more enticing. The heart-stilling terrain that serves as a backdrop for Hick is further brought to life by the music of Bob Dylan and a haunting, complementary score.
Hick joins a long string of American movies celebrating the power of resilience and optimism. From Star Wars (1977) to Good Will Hunting (1997) and the Harry Potter series (2001 – 2011), we rejoice in the triumph of spirit over matter, endurance over apathy, and good over evil. In most of those cases the heroes have been boys. Hick's tarnished champion is a girl and a very young girl at that. For that reason, despite its beauty and originality, Hick will make some uncomfortable. By now we are used to teens appearing on television, pretending to be femmes fatales but such images can be lightly dismissed as cartoons. Not so with Hick. Luli is a character to be taken seriously—one whose earnest and innocent sexuality is vivid. We have never met a 13-year old girl who sets out to write her own story, errors and twisted turns included. The question is whether we are ready for her and the world she will usher in. Time will tell.
Hick is a richly inspiring film; one that renews the conviction that in America all things are possible.
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