Two movies featuring Chloë Grace Moretz that couldn’t be more different debut this week. The stylish, spoiled and sarcastic teen she plays in the tongue-in-cheek Dark Shadows has exactly two things in common with the abused runaway she embodies in the film-noir nasty Hick: Both characters want to split for the big city ASAP, and both get mistaken for hookers.
Hick‘s dissatisfied Luli starts thumbing from Nebraska to Vegas shortly after celebrating her 13th birthday at a cheap bar with her neglectful mom (Juliette Lewis) and drunk dad (Anson Mount). Her gifts include a 7-11 keychain and a Smith & Wesson .45, one of which is sure to come in handy later.
Luli’s road trip turns out to be much more grim than viewers may expect, because this definitely isn’t a comedy — black or otherwise. Although Luli does have some of the street-smart cynicism Moretz displayed as Hit Girl in the 2010 superhero spoof Kick-Ass, the villains she encounters here are strictly the real-world, raping-and-killing kind.
Eddie (Eddie Redmayne), a supposed former bronco buster who gives Luli a lift in his pickup truck, seems okay until he starts remarking on her ripeness. Her next ride comes from trashy blond Glenda (Blake Lively), who offers Luli a snort of something that gives her high-contrast hallucinations, then enlists her participation in a convenience store robbery. The southern-accented single mother who smokes red cigarettes and wonders if Luli is a Communist because she doesn’t like whisky is the redneck reverse-image of the sophisticated socialite Lively plays on TV’s Gossip Girl.
Things go from bad to much worse for Luli when she finds out Eddie and Glenda have a history, and that Glenda is married to a hair-trigger violent big man in a small town named Lloyd (Ray McKinnon).
Moretz is excellent at making Luli seem both precocious yet unprepared for the kind of hard-boiled hell that awaits her. Likewise, Redmayne’s Eddie is creepily believable as a good ol’ country boy one minute and a rationalizing psycho the next.
Luli’s sketchbook of colored-pencil drawings inspires several sad reminiscences of a baby brother she misses. Those voiceover flashbacks seem like unnecessary script padding, but at least they slow the momentum of Luli’s descent.
Adapted by Andrea Portes from her novel, the screenplay includes allegories of a Wizard of Oz gone wrong: Luli’s red sandals, a semi-good witch whose name sounds like Glinda and a great-and-powerful bad guy feared by the locals. Not sure where the crack house fits in, though.
Director Derick Martini keeps the mood unsettlingly grim, lingering on some unpleasant scenes long enough to maximize audience anxiety. Supporting characters include Rory Culkin (as a motel guest who makes the mistake of trying to befriend Luli) and a scene-stealing Alec Baldwin (as a military medal recipient with questionable connections). Both had roles in Martini’s 2008 Lymelife.
What plays at first like the only funny moment in Hick comes early, when Luli is making a list of the pros and cons of running away to Vegas. The “pros” include “sugar daddy potential.” On the “con” side is “might die.” About halfway through this disturbingly downbeat drama, the latter possibility stops seeming like a joke.
[Rating: 3 stars]
Hick has its US theatrical release on Friday May 11, 2012.