Abandoned by her trailer trash parents, thirteen year old Luli McMullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) packs a .45 revolver in her handbag and ditches small town Nebraska for the open road, hoping to reach Las Vegas. She hitches a ride with Eddie (Eddie Redmayne), an initially affable young cowboy who turns nasty when the smart-mouthed teenager can’t hold her tongue. Dumped by the roadside, Luli soon finds another friend in Glenda (Blake Lively), a vivacious yet motherly grifter from whom she learns to survive by her wits and is given her first snort of cocaine. When Glenda cosies up to local real estate tycoon Lloyd Nash, Luli discovers Eddie works as his right-hand man. They patch up their differences as Luli accompanies Eddie on an evening of misadventure whereupon events turn sinister when they end up at a motel room.
Nebraska-born author Andrea Portas scored a bestseller with her semi-autobiographical novel but curiously this screen adaptation was seemingly loathed by everyone who saw it. Scripted by Portas herself, the film was directed by indie multi-hyphenate Derick Martini who first made waves as the screenwriter and star of offbeat romantic comedy Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish (1999). After some television work he made his directorial debut with comedy-drama Lymelife (2008) starring Alec Baldwin - who has a small supporting role here - and produced by Martin Scorsese who championed his work.
Wavering in tone from absurdist black comedy, unsettling thriller and a wistful character piece akin to the early films of Terrence Malick, most notably Badlands (1973), Hick hits some admittedly hot button issues. Adolescent sexuality, drug use, teenage obsession with celebrity and the unfortunate manner in which some young women find themselves drawn to violent men to their inevitable regret. All topics likely to rattle some sections of the audience, especially when dealt with in the non-hectoring, matter-of-fact manner they are here. But the fact is, like it or not, many young girls have such experiences.
The film adds up to an honest portayal of a flawed but engaging protagonist. It benefits from a terrific lead in the talented Chloë Grace Moretz. She excels as pistol-packing nymphet Luli McMullen, who idolizes Clint Eastwood, quoting Dirty Harry (1971) as she poses in front of the mirror with her Colt .45. A talented artist and storyteller, prone to outrageous lies and dreaming of a more exciting life away from her feckless parents (Juliette Lewis and Anson Mount), she is equal parts wise beyond her years and naive with a tenderness we do not want to see crushed.
Luli’s relationship with Glenda is nicely drawn by Portas and Martini with Gossip Girl star Blake Lively disproving her critics with a keenly etched performance. Together they seem like the “before” and “after” shot of the same girl. While some claimed the story reduced its redneck characters to shrill caricatures as per an unfortunate tradition among city-dwelling artists, in fact Portas and Martini take pains to give viewers a glimpse of their good and bad sides. Even Eddie is alternately menacing and sympathetic. British actor Redmayne, seen recently in Les Miserables (2012), drew the sole critical plaudits with his barnstorming performance but the film is well acted all round. We are never entirely certain if characters are lying or telling the truth. Sinister or sincere. This mirrors the uncertainty faced by this pretty, young girl as she ventures into the big wide world.
Interestingly the film drew criticism for its seemingly aimless narrative and jarring shifts in tone from comedy to drama, melancholy and terror - the sort of qualities cinefiles constantly praise in films from the Seventies which this great resembles. However, the fact remains the film does lose its way in the third act which marks a lurch too far into the absurd. For the most part though it is an intriguing and unjustly maligned curate’s egg with a great soundtrack featuring the likes of Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and assorted Bob Dylan classics.