Hellion: Sundance Review
Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis star alongside 15-year-old first-timer Josh Wiggins in this troubled family drama from director Kat Candler.
A fragile expansion of writer-director Kat Candler's 2012 short film of the same name, Hellion benefits from Aaron Paul's wrung-out performance as a widowed blue-collar father who has given up on life, all but abandoning his sons to fend for themselves. And the work of young newcomer Josh Wiggins will turn heads as the most volatile of those two kids, spinning out of control. The actors' raw honesty and the unvarnished authenticity of the Southeast Texas environment lend weight to this slow-burn drama about responsibility, even if its storytelling is unrelentingly downbeat and lacks muscularity.
Among the executive producers is Jeff Nichols, whose Mud is one of a number of better recent movies vaguely recalled here in the depiction of unsupervised male adolescents attempting to navigate adult situations.
"I will take ownership for my actions and the consequences of those actions," recites 13-year-old Jacob Wilson (Wiggins) as part of a probationary program that's one step away from incarceration in a juvenile detention facility. In order for what's left of the Wilson family to save itself, that pledge will have to be taken by both Jacob and his father, Hollis (Paul), who has been emotionally and sometimes physically absent since the death of his wife. He's either out drinking or off in Galveston, trying to repair the hurricane-battered beach house where they had planned to make a fresh start.
Jacob is a dirt bike racing enthusiast who hangs out with a crew of vandals. He sets off alarm bells when he begins involving his adoring kid brother, Wes (Deke Garner), in their destructive acts. That, plus evidence of Hollis' poor parenting, soon lead to the 10-year-old boy being placed in the custody of his concerned aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis). While Hollis struggles to clean up and get Wes back legally, the increasingly unmanageable Jacob fixates on winning an amateur motocross race, eventually turning to other, more reckless solutions.
Candler lays on agitated blasts of heavy metal guitar for texture, and desolate images of the coastal refineries that dominate the flat landscape. There's atmosphere and a sense of place in the hazy, sun-bleached visuals. But although the narrative elements are more or less all here, something is missing in the writing.
While the film is absorbing and not without pathos, there's insufficient insight or shape to the screenplay, which drifts between Hollis and Jacob without building momentum. One problem is that keeping the idea of Galveston as a cherished dream to which Hollis has been clinging rather than confronting reality never gains much traction. And a violent climactic development involving Jacob's scrappy buddies is poorly handled, requiring one of them to act out in ways that are given only clumsy foreshadowing. As a group, these directionless kids are just not very nuanced.
It's up to the actors to fill in the gaps, with some managing better than others. Paul's eyes show a desperate intensity as Hollis scrambles, without any kind of a plan, to set aside his wounds and keep hold of his sons. That he loves them is never in question. Wiggins provides a window to the pain, anger and confusion churning inside Jacob. Garner registers tenderly as Wes is torn between binding affection for his brother and father on one hand, and accepting the stability of a new life with his aunt on the other. Lewis does what she can to warm up an underwritten part.
Aside from the two lead performances, what the movie has going for it, primarily, is its poignant observation of sibling love and enduring bonds between even the most damaged fathers and sons.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, Josh Wiggins, Deke Garner, Jonny Mars, Dalton Sutton, Camron Owens, Dylan Cole, Walt Roberts, Annalee Jefferies
Production companies: Silver Sail Entertainment, in association with Arts + Labor, Ten Acre Films
Director-screenwriter: Kat Candler
Producers: Kelly Williams, Jonathan Duffy
Executive producers: Janice Beard, Tanner Beard, Suzanne Weinert, Sarah Green, Jeff Nichols
Director of photography: Brett Pawlak
Production designer: Deneice O'Connor
Music: Curtis Heath
Costume designer: Annell Brodeur
Editor: Alan Canant
No rating, 99 minutes