The awards are over and the 2023 edition of Heartland International Film Festival is set to wrap up.
Some filmmakers are happy. Some less so. As an Academy Award-qualifying fest, Heartland attracts the best of the best truly moving pictures and yet has always maintained its fierce devotion to indie filmmaking and the best that Indiana has to offer. It's not easy to get into Heartland. In fact, only around 10% of those who submit their films do.
Writer/director Jack Lugar's Hellcat wasn't one of the 2023 prize winners, though this Indiana-made film having its world premiere at Heartland is a worthy slice of Americana and a film that oozes everything I love about my lifelong home of Indiana.
Hellcat stars newcomer Ed Paul Fry as Ricky "Hellcat" Heller, an Americana rock star on the downward spiral who returns to his hometown of Anderson, Indiana in a move that opens old wounds, stirs up some new ones, and forces Heller to once and for all deal with a lifetime spent walking out on others in his life.
If you know Fry, and as an Indiana boy myself I do in a fairly modest way, you already know the real-life singer/songwriter is ideally suited to play a character like Hellcat. It's easy to see why first-time feature director Lugar looked his way. Lugar, an Anderson University cinema professor with Hollywood cred, knows his way around a film set and obviously has a strong vision for the story he's telling here that goes a bit beyond your usual redemption story.
As the story goes, Hellcat checked out of town a few years earlier following the tragic death of his son. He left behind a bewildered wife, Susanna (Julia Barnett), who's since built a good life for herself, and an equally bewildered father (Roland VanHorn). As Hellcat returns, he really doesn't. Hellcat makes it clear that this aging rock star's absence hasn't made the heart grow fonder and his disconnection reverberates throughout many of the film's early scenes. These scenes are enhanced by the film's actually being shot in Anderson, Indiana, a solid working-class town that is a little more faded in comparison to its former glory as a hub of General Motors manufacturing. The disconnect is, at times, palpable and Fry radiates it in his frequent brief, occasionally volatile encounters.
Along the way, Hellcat encounters Tyler (Thomas Reger), a troubled young man whose connection to Hellcat's own traumatic past will be revealed. Reger does a nice job of capturing both the swagger and vulnerability of a young man whose journey always seems to reach a dead end. If you're guessing that somehow Tyler's will ultimately challenge Hellcat and show him a new path to life, you wouldn't be wrong.
Hellcat is the little indie gem you enjoy finding at your indie/microcinema film fest. It's a meaningful and heartfelt film with an honest, empathetic performance from Fry in a demanding role that practically carries the film. Julia Barnett gives a quiet tour-de-force performance as Susanna, lending the film a rich emotional care and helping us understand layers and layers of her trauma along with Hellcat's.
Kudos should be offered as well to the talented Benjy Gaither as barkeep Ace and, of course, Reger's work here is impressive and carries a nice rhythm with Fry. Speaking of rhythm, Fry himself contributes the film's impressive original music. Lensing by Jonathan P. Williams immerses us in the film's Indiana setting and nicely complements the film's emotionally resonant storytelling.
Having its world premiere alongside some other glitzier motion pictures at Heartland, Hellcat is a quiet little gem with an abundance of heart and some true Americana storytelling. I hope you get the chance to check out, if not at Heartland then somewhere along the film's indie fest journey.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic