Kat Candler expands her short film of the same name to feature-length with Hellion, in which she explores the warm-tinted indie trend of faux-nostalgia for small Southern towns, where the ruffians – or hellions – learn to be men. Subplots abound in this tale of men on the Texan coastline, but there’s no strong central plot to be found.
Aaron Paul plays Hollis Wilson, a grieving husband who’s lost his wife and is trying to keep custody of his two sons. Paul brings a level of emotional depth to the character that audiences have come to expect from the Breaking Bad actor, but it’s really 15-year-old Josh Wiggins who steals the show – in his first film to date – as the older son, Jacob. Deke Garner and Juliette Lewis round out the cast as Wes, the younger brother, and Pam, the boys’ aunt. A combination of Hollis’s parental absence and Jacob’s delinquent behavior eventually exposes the family to Child Protective Services, putting Wes in the custody of Aunt Pam and pushing the father and protective older brother to a breaking point.
Much like a young Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries, Wiggins gets under your skin as a perpetual punk who’s slipping dangerously, while much like Tye Sheridan in Mud, he draws out your sympathy and respect for Jacob with a sense of quiet intelligence and a clear communication his principled focus.
Most of the film is carried by the stellar performances of its leads, but even the best displays can’t detract entirely from some obvious plot devices, like an introduction to guns, a potentially redemptive motocross race and the aunt in general. The motocross race in particular becomes its own subplot, requiring its own understood tropes and montages just to scrape by, in an already shaky script.
Aunt Pam serves almost entirely to be the person that the kids might be given to if CPS takes them from Hollis, and so, through no fault of Lewis, the character is basically empty. Why not just cut the character, and spend more time playing to the film’s strengths: Hollis and Jacob? The script’s balance already feels unstable between the two of them, and there’s no need to add another character to the mix.
Lastly, there’s a bit of an awkwardness here in the blatant attempt to build tension with characters repeatedly bringing up an incident in which a local kid was shot and killed in juvenile detention, a place where Jacob may soon end up. But when Jacob is prepping for the big motocross race, trying to win back the favor of his little brother and mediating the growing tension between his violent friends, the direction chosen by the third act feels arbitrary.
Hellion offers Aaron Paul one of his darkest non-Breaking Bad roles, and it introduces us to Josh Wiggins, who will hopefully continue to elevate films with his natural talent. But other than that – this whole thing has pretty much been done before and really scrutinized at every angle. For much more of the same, plus the presence of a few well-rounded female characters, go watch Friday Night Lights.
The Upside: Amazing performance by rookie actor Josh Wiggins and an expectedly great turn by Aaron Paul
The Downside: The plot is murky and spiked with subplots that barely add anything but the tropes the require
On the Side: In Kat Candler’s original Hellion short, Deke Garner played the lead as a corrupted younger brother.