A wayward rock star returns to his hometown of Anderson, Ind., to reconcile with old hurts and take a step toward redemption in this heartfelt drama.
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There’s many a rock song that’s been sung about returning home to a bittersweet arrival, finding either the place has changed too much or you have — a schism that can never be closed.
“Hellcat” is a different sort of tune, about a has-been middling rock star going back to Anderson, Ind., to reconcile with old hurts and take a step toward redemption. It’s an extraordinarily painful move that forces him to confront a lifetime of walking out on others.
But, like sealing an open wound with a red-hot iron, the pain is a necessary part of the healing process.
Anderson University cinema professor Jack Lugar wrote and directed the feature film, his first stint in the director’s chair after working in Hollywood as a television writer and producer. It stars Edward Paul Fry, a real-life singer/songwriter, in the title role of Hellcat, aka Ricky Heller.
It’s a heartfelt movie with a lot of tough scenes about people who feel worthless and alone. Hellcat himself has been carrying around several chips on his shoulder for decades, someone who was looked up to by fans but feels embarrassed to show his face around his hometown.
He cut out three years ago after the death of his teen son, Jameson, without so much as a goodbye to anyone. His wife, Susanna, harbors a well-deserved grudge against
Ricky, and now runs a popular local coffee shop. She’s played by Julia Barnett in an emotionally resonant performance, the hard glare in her eyes reflecting her pain but with just a glimmer of compassion and hope.
Hellcat also stops in at his dad’s (Roland VanHorn) farm, though only in short bursts that are obviously like touching a scalding pot to him. He also reconnects with Conrad (Reggie McGuire), a high school buddy he used to get into scrapes with who’s now a preacher, the sort of guy who’s an anchor for the community.
Hellcat exudes a mixture of bravado and tension, cruising around in a hot classic Chevy Chevelle and rock star shades. But he also fidgets nervously with an old lighter, even though he gave up smoking. Drink, too, though it exasperates the bartender (Benjy Gaither) at his old drive, serving up club sodas and offering him a spot to croon when the mood strikes.
I’m pretty familiar with Anderson myself, both for professional and personal reasons. It’s a classic General Motors town that was hollowed out when the factories shut down, and has struggled hard to build itself back up since. The rates of poverty, substance abuse and suicide are among the highest in Indiana. I’ve spent many a long night working with some of those hardest hit in the community.
But there’s also a lot of art and passion in the city, held together by working-class folks who grit out the hard stretches of life. It feels like exactly the sort of place someone like Hellcat could’ve come out of. There’s perhaps a passing resemblance to real-life local music star Dane Clark and his no-nonsense Midwestern rock sound with not a little country twang.
There’s not too much of a linear story to the movie, essentially a series of encounters Hellcat has with different people. He tends to show up unannounced and get squirrelly and leave quick. This leads to a sense of disconnectedness through the middle portion of the film.
The film finds its way again as Hellcat gradually develops a relationship with Tyler, a ne’er-do-well tall drink of water played by Thomas Reger, sort of a latter-day James Dean type. He’s been in all sorts of trouble and just got out of a halfway house, working as a mechanic and sleeping in the back room.
Turns out he’s Jameson’s best friend, and the tragedy of Hellcat’s son passing makes it hard for him to even be around Tyler at first. He has continual haunting flashbacks to two long-haired boys tipping drunk on a railroad drunk, and one didn’t walk away.
“Getting trained in Anderson” is a phrase locals use to describe the many criss-crossing lines with unpredictable schedules, Hellcat muses. Purportedly John Dillinger never pulled a bank job there because he feared having his getaway path blocked.
But, as with Susanna, Hellcat gradually reinserts himself into the world of the living by befriending Tyler and becoming something like a cross between a mentor and brother to him.
“Hellcat” is obviously a low-budget affair and the lack of production values is sometimes apparent. Fry is a novice on camera and that sometimes shows, too, as he’s expected to carry most every scene. A lot of the background players are made up of locals, friends and family members.
Despite some amateurish aspects, “Hellcat” is a worthy watch. It’s the sort of movie that reminds you of your own losses and mistakes, and we feel the empathy welling. We root for Ricky Heller even if he can’t strum up any self-worth on his own. He’s stuck, and finally realizes he needs to write a new song to take a step forward.