Teen tearaway flick courts controversy


All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” So wrote Jean-Luc Godard way back in 1961, and some 50 years later people are still testing that theory. The latest young director to do so is Derick Martini, whose “Hick” stars Chloe Grace Moretz (“Hugo,” “Kick-Ass”) as a jailbait teen runaway, and a Smith & Wesson .45 as the gun.

“Hick” is based on a novel by Andrea Portes, which was quite successful among a demographic that was mainly female and of the inclination to walk a bit on the wild side during their long-gone teenage years. (Reactions to the film have also largely split along a male-female divide, but more on that later.)

As one might expect from a film called “Hick,” we’re dropped into a stereotypical white-trash nowhere in rural Nebraska, where parents think celebrating their daughter’s 13th birthday in a bar — until they get fall-down drunk — is acceptable behavior. When Mom (Juliette Lewis) runs off with a realtor and Dad (Anson Mount) is too hungover to do much about it, 13-year-old Luli (played by a then-13-year-old Moretz) says “Screw this,” packs a bag and the .45 — one of her birthday presents — and hits the road for Los Angeles with dreams of the movies and finding a “sugar daddy.”

A young girl dressed like Jodie Foster’s teen prostitute in “Taxi Driver” doesn’t have to wait long when hitching a ride, and you don’t need a psychic to predict trouble pulling up to the curb. Ride No. 1 is a suave ex-rodeo cowboy named Eddie (Eddie Redmayne, “My Week With Marilyn”), whose sly charm slips to reveal a short fuse. After extracting herself from that situation, Luli winds up with Ride No. 2, Glenda (Blake Lively), a tarty, cocaine-sniffing grifter who reluctantly takes the teen under her wing.

So far so good, but what’s shaping up as a seedy road movie takes a sharp turn when Glenda goes to visit her obnoxious sugar daddy, Lloyd (Ray McKinnon), and look who’s tending bar at his McMansion but good ol’ Eddie. Turns out that out of all the rides she could have hitched in all the endless highways of the Midwest, Luli hitched with two people who have a history, one of whom’s a stalker-tweaker. All the go-anywhere potential of road-movie chance encounters drains away as we’re left with these two, and the rather noticeable stink of a contrived plot.

As Luli, Moretz walks a fine line between teen-girl innocence — drawing colorful, childish pictures of her life in an elaborately decorated notebook — and a dangerous precociousness, forever asking far older men, “Do you think I’m pretty?” The filmmakers sure don’t shy away from accentuating her jailbait allure, costuming her in Daisy Dukes, halter top and the sort of sunglasses Sue Lyon wore in “Lolita.” This has been problematic for a lot of viewers since the film was released overseas, especially as the drama in “Hick” is based on one premise: Will Luli’s reckless trust in strangers get her raped or not?

Most reviewers have been creeped out by a plot that hinges on pedophilia, and the film didn’t get a wide release abroad. Portes, who also wrote the screenplay, has been making the rounds damning the critics as a bunch of out-of-touch “old white men” who can’t understand the mindset of a 13-year-old girl. Condemning “the patriarchy” for being repelled by pedophilia seems a bit rich — and would indicate a failure in communication by the filmmakers — but Portes is right in saying that the film has seen a huge gender and age gap in the reactions it’s elicited. (One commenter on movie website IMDb put it best when she said, “I just don’t think this is a film for older people. They’d probably just get mad or freaked out or something.”)

Male viewers might tend to see a guy like Eddie for what he is, and could be less likely to understand why Luli would ever get back in a car with him. Women, however, may be more likely to see how a young girl with a head full of daddy issues and craving excitement and recognition as an adult might look past the danger signals and see only that irresistible smile and bad-boy allure. The ability to read people on initial impressions is a skill often learned the hard way, and I’d say “Hick” nails that sense of young people taking risks beyond what they imagine, and I say that as someone who did his own share of hitching as a teen.

I’d also say, though, that Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen” (2003) did a far better job of it, without taking its plot to ridiculous extremes or filling it with post-Quentin Tarantino movie quotes. “Hick” is worth a look to see Moretz moving steadily toward stardom, but that’s about it, unless you harbor your own dreams of running away from home.