This review was originally published on January 19, 2014…
How many times have we sat in movie theaters and watched people heal? It is the foundation of so many melodramas designed to remind us of the amazing power that people have to pick up broken pieces, especially when parenthood has put them in a position where they don’t have a choice. It’s inspirational when done well. “He did it. So can I.”
While the subject matter may be well-worn ground, few recent dramas have captured people trying to pull themselves from emotional quicksand as rivetingly as Kat Candler’s Hellion, a film that heralds the arrival of two major talents in its filmmaker and young lead, and should allay any fears on the part of Breaking Bad fans that Aaron Paul will continue his remarkable career. This is the best of the 2014 Sundance fest to date; a raw, honest, special film.
13-year-old Jacob Wilson (newcomer Josh Wiggins) is introduced burning a car in the parking lot of a high school football game. At the police station, his dad Hollis (Aaron Paul) informs him that he has one strike left before he’ll be locked up in juvenile prison. Even now, he’ll have to go to training during the day to try to break him of his hellion ways. Jacob has a still-sweet younger brother named Wes (Deke Garner) who often tags along on Jacob’s rebellious journeys, along with a “crew” of other friends. They listen to Metallica, ride Motocross, eat Wonder Bread & whipped cream sandwiches, and generally buck authority in ways that will remind every male viewer of their testosterone-fueled youth.
Why is Jacob lashing out and where is his father? Jacob’s mom is dead. His dad fights his depression the way so many people do – through alcohol. He leaves for days at a time, trying to fix up the Galveston home that he longed to make his wife’s dream house before she died. Just as Jacob is fighting against depression by rebelling, Hollis is doing it through booze. Wes is young enough that he hasn’t been lost like his other male role models, and Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis) notices this fact. Should she pull Wes out of this dark scene before he turns into Jacob and Jacob turns into Hollis?
Hellion has the feel of watching emotional wounds heal that’s not dissimilar from Destin Cretton’s excellent Short Term 12 (and it seems not coincidental that both were shot by the great Brett Pawlak). Stepping from loss and grief to normalcy is gradual, painful, and difficult. There’s so much truth in this film as to how boys interact with their fathers and vice versa that one loses the performers in the characters. Wiggins is so completely in every moment that we feel his pain and it’s impossible not to want to grab him, save him, and do whatever it takes to find him the peace he so clearly needs. Hellion has moments of such true heartbreak that so many other melodramas seek through cliché, but that Candler finds by being true to her characters.
There is a beat in the final act, a climax moment that I won’t spoil, that just misses its target in terms of believability. The film is so genuine for so long, and so beautiful in its small beats, that I wish Candler hadn’t gone for such an over-the-top climax. It’s redeemed by a few beats after that climax that make the disingenuous nature of how we got there easy to forgive. I wish I could have fine-tuned the journey but the destination rings true with the bulk of the film, so the speed bump isn’t film-shattering (although I could see it being so for some viewers). I also do wish there were a few more humorous beats in the film. Cretton had such a balance in Short Term 12 with some solid laughs in the drama; this is more straightforward in terms of tone.
Finally, Candler asks a lot of her two leads and they deliver from first frame to last. Paul is spectacular here and Wiggins gives one of those star-making performances that rings so true that you forget he’s acting. He doesn’t overplay the little-boy-lost routine, never falling into the traps of the mopey teen either. He’s just a kid. He wants to save his family. He wants to rock. He wants to ride. And he wants his mom. Like Candler’s film, his pain feels real. And so even though we have watched people heal before, we are invigorated by being so artistically given the chance to do so again.