I rented Hick without knowing the first thing about it. I had decided to try Redbox for the first time, and the title appealed to my sensibilities. This is often how I go about deciding what it is I’ll watch or read next; a good title will sell me much more easily than a glowing review or a friend’s recommendation ever could. Having grown up in a trailer park in the southern part of New Jersey—which may as well be Kentucky for how vastly it differs from those northern areas adjacent to New York—I was confident I’d find something to enjoy in a movie whose title could have very well described any and all of my neighbors.
Put simply, I really liked Hick. It’s a movie that I’m predisposed to enjoy. There are kids acting like adults and adults acting like kids—one of my favorite tropes in anything. There’s Patsy Cline playing in the background. There are drifters and grifters. There’s Alec Baldwin. Sold. And though I came away thinking there were a few moments that missed the mark, and that the overall tone of the film was somewhat difficult to pin down, I didn’t regret my rental in the slightest. I even went so far as to tweet about it.
Imagine my surprise to find, only minutes later, that my kind-but-lukewarm endorsement had been retweeted by the film’s Twitter account, and then by Derick Martini, the director. Judging by the feed on both accounts, it seemed every tweet that even resembled a positive comment about the film had been retweeted to the masses. It wasn’t until I searched Martini’s name—and spoke with Eric Melin, Scene-Stealers’ Editor-in-Chief—that I learned perhaps why that was: Hick was a more contentious film than I ever could have realized. That’s putting it kindly. The truth is, Hick has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes after aggregating nearly twenty reviews. Exactly zero percent.
I read the reviews. Some of the criticism made sense, and many reviewers shared my view on the challenge of the film’s wavering tone. But what was unmistakably present in the majority of these reviews was this surprising—and I’d venture: biased, unfair, and unwarranted— sense of vitriol that I hadn’t come across in film crit in some time. People hated this film. Consider Mark Olsen, for the Los Angeles Times: “Hick is part road movie and part coming-of-age story but mostly plays like some creepy-perv fantasia.” Or James Rocchi, for The Playlist, who calls the film, “a black blot of shame for everyone who had a part in its making.” What? Had we all seen the same movie?
That’s when something else caught my eye on Rotten Tomatoes: the audience ratings. I hadn’t seen it at first. Aggregating nearly 4,000 user reviews, Hick was averaging a rating of 3/5, an approval that stood in direct contrast to what the journalists had to say. So I wasn’t alone.
I reached out to Eric, who has been kind enough to publish so many of my rambling, circling-to-land thoughts about underdog films on this site before. I told him about my experience with Hick, about my shock and awe at how it had been treated critically. And now that I had something like a direct line with the director, would he be interested in letting me unpack this complicated, contentious, but worthwhile film? He agreed, and Derick Martini was kind enough as to indulge some questions from yours truly. Below is an edited-down version of our conversation. It’s a discussion that I think you’ll find very interesting, and I’m so gracious for Derick’s candor.
But before I get to it, let me say this: Hick is not a perfect film. I can’t even promise it’s a film that most people will enjoy. It swims against the tide of what the viewer is comfortable with, what we expect out of coming-of-age stories. It objects to the most agreed-upon definitions of a satisfying narrative arc. And there are scenes that are incredibly difficult to watch. However, I’m not sure any of those observations equate to Hick being a bad film, only a challenging one. It’s certainly not the canker sore on cinema’s cheek that the aforementioned reviews have made it out to be. There is an audience out there who has really enjoyed this movie—myself included among them—and there’s something to be said for that.
I’m hoping this piece, and the interview below, will create a space for a more thoughtful discussion than has existed around the film thus far, and, moreover, that it will encourage you, the reader, to rent it and decide for yourself.
Here’s the official synopsis of Hick: “Small town teenager Luli (Chloe Grace Moretz) escapes to Las Vegas, leaving behind her alcoholic and abusive parents. Armed with her smarts, a pistol and pocket money, she hitchhikes her way west. Along the way, Luli crosses paths with Eddie (Eddie Redmayne), an unstable rebel with questionable motives and Glenda (Blake Lively), a cocaine-snorting drifter on the run. Adapted from the critically acclaimed novel by Andrea Portes, this powerful story pulls you into a provocative world of drugs, seduction and murder.”
Vincent Scarpa: One of the things that interests me the most about Hick is the way in which, for Luli, sexuality is linked to violence. This shows up throughout the course of the film: at the beginning, when she holds her new pistol to the mirror and reenacts what she’s seen on TV, simultaneously looking down her shirt and readjusting her breasts. When she holds Lux (Bob Stephenson), an intruder in her house as far as she is concerned, at gunpoint and asks, “Do you think I’m pretty?” She asks the same question of Eddie after the incident at the bar in Wyatt. To me, the crux of the film really does seem to rely on navigating this balance between sex and violence, and I wondered if you might talk a bit about why that interested you. Is this the product of Luli’s poor upbringing, of being at the cusp of puberty, of her having seen too many movies, or a combination of all of the above?
Derick Martini: First of all, what kind of parents let their 13-year-old kid receive a gun on her birthday and allow her to keep it? Maybe in the 1800s, but nowadays you have to be a very poor parent to allow that sort of thing. This was in the novel and also in the screenplay. This piqued my interest. Instead of shrugging it off as incredulous, I became very curious about what Luli was going through. How was she coping with this sort of damaged parenting? All the while, yes, she is hitting puberty and her body is changing and her hormones are raging.
I believe the gun and Luli’s sexuality are two separate elements of the story that loosely connect at times. For example, when Luli is holding the gun and practicing her “shooting poses” in the mirror, she suddenly feels powerful. Then when she notices her body changing, she also feels a power in that as well, but a less tangible power; more amorphous. Whereas the gun is the gun—it’s a universal symbol of power—her budding sexuality is much more confusing to her. Does it give her a sense of empowerment? Sure, but she is extremely insecure about it, because it isn’t tangible like the gun.
This is why you see Luli—less so in the Lux scene, because Lux is not as meaningful of a character to her—in that scene with Eddie after the pool hall incident be completely vulnerable and ask Eddie the question, “Do you think I’m pretty”? She truly doesn’t know the answer. Her parents certainly are not the types to compliment her or raise her self-esteem. So who else is there? Eddie. And on the heels of watching Eddie bludgeon a would-be attacker and then convincing her that he saved her and would never sell her off, she has been emotionally disarmed. Then, when Eddie sort of throws away the line about her being “smart and pretty,” Luli is genuinely curious if he believes it.
As written, she wasn’t as vulnerable, she was snarkier about it. But as we started to film the scene, it felt wrong to have Chloe play that question in a defensive way. It didn’t feel truthful. So, in my eyes, she’s looking for the truth to that question, and it isn’t an easy question to ask a guy who she is simultaneously attracted to and afraid of.
VS: The “pistol for a pistol” that Luli receives at her 13th birthday party that you’ve mentioned, in many ways, sets the film on the course of action. We know that, by the film’s end, the gun will go off. And in a movie where our narrator is put in many different kinds of danger, I wondered if there was any intended alleviation of worry or concern for Luli’s safety by giving her a gun at the outset.
DM: The purpose the gun serves, for me, is that the audience knows it is present, in her bag, and could be used at any time. It adds another dimension of tension throughout the course of the film. We did not reinvent the wheel on that one. However, I was asked once by someone after a screening, “Well, if she had the gun in her bag, why didn’t she shoot the guy in the pool hall?” Honest question. Honest answer: She’s 13 years old, and despite the fact that during her “private moments” alone she’s playing with the gun in the mirror, it would be out of character for her to be savvy enough to reach into her bag and shoot a guy that is fiercely and quickly coming after her in closed quarters.
VS: Framing the film around Luli’s sketches that tell the story of her brother who has died in infancy, her brother “born the color of light coming off the moon,” is a device that first struck me as somewhat divisive, but by the end seemed to crystallize. I wondered if you might talk a bit about what the effect of that framework is. What characteristics does it lend to Luli? To her parents? Is it specified in the screenplay—or perhaps in the film, and I’ve missed it twice—how long after these events the film begins?
DM: You didn’t miss anything. The baby-brother story line implies that the loss of the child has corroded her parents relationship to its very core. Maybe even corroded her parents’ souls. They are not the type, to me, who would be able to emotionally overcome the death of a child—even stable people never overcome a tragedy like that. Ironically, it’s Luli who seems to cope the healthiest—which is what the sketches are all about. Those sketches are a release for her. A way for us, the audience, to see and understand the effect this loss has had on her. One of the pieces of research I had Chloe do was to read The Catcher In The Rye in order to show her how Holden Caufield was coping with the loss of a sibling.
VS: I like to think of Eddie as being a Western Humbert Humbert, with gunslinger sex appeal rather than poetic charm, and I imagine it must have been one of the more difficult roles to cast. What brought you to Eddie Redmayne?
DM: I saw him in the play RED. Thought he was brilliant. Then when Hick came along and I cast Chloe, she and her brother Trevor brought him up, which was music to my ears. I knew I didn’t have to audition him—I met him over Skype and just asked “Do you want this?”
VS: I find the soundtrack of Hick to be really fascinating. What was the intended effect of juxtaposing the events of the film—sex, danger, rape, coke, and everything in between—to some of the most inviting, familiar country classics? It’s an interesting device, and I’d love to know the genesis of it.
DM: It’s pretty much defined as contrapuntal, I guess. I think I have a tendency to do that at times, when it works—take an extremely violent scene and lay in a tune that counters the violence, as opposed to playing a tune that plays strongly with it. Take Patsy Cline, “Sweet Dreams”—it’s this melodic, soft, but at times operatic tune that ebbs and flows with emotion. It’s a love song. I chose that for the scene where Eddie is most unhinged and chasing Luli through the blueberry field, as opposed to laying in a piece of score that tells the audience, “You should be scared for her here”. Instead I have, as you say, an “inviting” tune there. I like that. It feels right. All the tunes in the movie feel right to me. Using Bob Dylan’s “Suze” as the main—using a lot of Dylan in this film—felt right to me, mainly because I feel the movie is very much like a Dylan tune. Sometimes you have no clue what he’s talking about, but it sure is interesting.
VS: What, if any, were your concerns about releasing this film into the world? Were you cognizant of the more controversial issues the film was tackling, or was the screenplay so organic that it belied the real risks of the material?
DM: Hindsight is 20/20, but not in this case. On my first film, Lymelife, I had complete autonomy. My producer Jon Cornick and I had raised all of the money ourselves. It was my script, so if I wanted to completely change the direction of the story, I could have, and I did with certain scenes. With Hick, Andrea Portes, the author/screenwriter, and her brother, producer Charles De Portes, raised all of the funds. That’s not to say I was handcuffed to the script because I wasn’t. However, the script was pretty much what the book was, and in that way it was organic to shoot what was on the page—even though, as a screenwriter, I knew it was risky material. Forget the sexuality—just the randomness of the story seemed to break a whole bunch of basic screenwriting principles I was taught. But this intrigued me as opposed to scaring me off. I was completely aware that the script was a creative risk. But isn’t that what independent filmmaking is all about? Taking risks? I think so. And, for me, it did work. It hit all of the emotional notes that were on the page, and then some.
I remember when my editor, Mark Yoshikawa, and I had a decent cut, we brought my producer Jon Cornick up to Rhode Island where we were editing to take a look at it. After the screening, Cornick said, and I’m paraphrasing, “We made a beautiful film with some remarkable performances, BUT this is a very controversial film we have on our hands and it has to be handled properly. If we don’t get out ahead of this, marketing-wise, and let people know how dark and heavy this film is at times, we’re going to get crushed by the critics.” Jon had a plan, several plans actually, to do early word-of- mouth screenings before the premiere at TIFF, targeting the audience we all felt this would appeal to. Fans of Chloe and Blake, that age range, fans of risky and experimental films in general, etc. Let them tweet out their responses and we’ll focus on those that truthfully reflect the film and publicize them.
Now this is where not having complete autonomy really hurt us. Cornick’s plans of “positioning” the film properly before TIFF fell on deaf ears. The other producers, who raised the money, were running around Hollywood, taking meetings with agents, setting up screenings for agents—clearly not our target audience. I did do my own director’s test screenings for editorial purposes, but that was not what Cornick was interested in. He had the right idea, but we didn’t hold the purse strings and couldn’t make it happen. And that hurt us. It hurt the movie.
Before we knew it, we were up at Toronto, a big fish in a big pond, premiering Hick, but no one had a clue what they were walking into. It was as if we blindfolded the audience members until the film started rolling and then ripped their blindfolds off. And as much as I love TIFF—only two years ago I was there with Lymelife receiving the critic’s prize—that screening really hurt the movie. Everything Cornick said was going to happen, did happen. The audience was not prepared to be bludgeoned with a heavy, emotional film from me. A couple of internet critics, who will remain nameless, were literally tweeting during the first reel of the film that it was a failure. It became a critical spiral—it became the high profile film to write a bad review on.
It is and will always be a polarizing film and we should have let the world know that before the TIFF screening, before the few bloggers had a chance to negatively taint the critical world. That was our mistake. And the only thing I would’ve done differently—if I had the chance to do it all again—was force Cornick’s plan on production. That is my single regret with Hick because, as you can see, you’re on Twitter, you read the audience feedback—many more people love the film than hate it.
In fact, the film has hardcore fans who watch it over and over, and not because Chloe is in her underwear and tank top for one scene — because the movie is well-made, it speaks to a certain audience, and they love it.