The pre-credit sequence of Hellion has 13 year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins) committing an act of vandalism that gets him put on probation, rather than sent to juvenile hall. His father, Hollis (Aaron Paul), urges him to take responsibility for his actions, and takes away his motorcross bike. However, Hollis is no great role model. A widower and a drunk, his home is littered with dirty dishes, empty bottles, and other representations of his messed up life. It only takes another act of vandalism by Jacob and his younger brother Wes (Deke Garner) to have Child Protection Services place Wes in the care of his aunt, Pam (Juliette Lewis).
Hellion, written and directed by Kat Candler, creates a gritty, authentic portrait of Jacob’s unhappy life. Watching this tormented youth (and his gang of friends) channeling and expressing their rage by bashing shaken up soda cans with a baseball bat is pure Texas miserablism.
Candler tries to create a compassionate redemption tale, with scenes of Jacob working towards completing his probation period, and Hollis not drinking and literally cleaning up his house. However, the characters’ bad behavior is far more interesting. Watching Jacob sneak into Wes’ bedroom and steal him away to set something on fire is far more revealing about his character than seeing Jacob enter an amateur motorcross competition in the hopes of finding a sense of achievement.
Part of the film’s problem is that Candler freights her story with heavy-handled symbols–a literally broken home, or a gun that Jacob handles. No master of subtlety, Candler gilds the lily when just watering the flower would suffice. Her overkill is so irksome at times, Hellion feels as if Candler made this film to judge all of the rash and bad decisions Hollis and Jacob make rather than to study her characters as they organically come to life.
Moreover, Candler has things escalate to the point where they get out of control. When Jacob hatches a bad plan to save Wes in the last reel, the frustration viewers will likely feel is a response to Candler’s insistence on contrived plotting.
Wiggins’ compelling performance does compensate for some of the film’s narrative flaws. The young actor makes an auspicious debut here, displaying an intensity and ferocity that engenders some sympathy. When Jacob confronts his father publicly in a restaurant, and literally and figuratively pushes his father about something from their past, Wiggins exposes both Jacob’s toughness and vulnerability.
Unfortunately Aaron Paul is saddled with playing a character whose life unfolds like a bad country tune. The Breaking Bad actor can only do so much with Hollis’ sad sack qualities–dead wife, bad parent, drunk, broke, and literally rebuilding a home–and Candler restricts Paul almost as much as the courts restrict Hollis.
And this is a shame. Hellion could have been tough and intense like its title character, Jacob, but Candler boxes her characters into tight corners, allowing them only to flail.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.