Hellion (2014) — Image via facebook.com/hellionfilm

Hellion

Directed by Kat Candler (2014)

As its title suggests, Kat Candler’s film Hellion is about a child who is, to use a cliché, “out of control.” More specifically, Hellion is a film that methodically interrogates what it means to be out of control and how one might end up that way. Buoyed by standout performances by teenage newcomer Josh Wiggins and Breaking Bad alumnus Aaron Paul, Candler’s film can be frustrating to watch, but it ultimately proves to be an honest, earnest, and restrained look into the lives of characters who have been dealt a bad hand by life and have no choice but to figure out what to do with what they have.

Hellion (2014) — Image via facebook.com/hellionfilmThe film begins with an act of vandalism carried out by 13-year-old Jacob Wilson (Wiggins) and his friends outside a high-school football game. Jacob is caught, and after he refuses to turn in his accomplices, the court places him in a probation program that is just one step away from juvenile detention. Soon, we gain some context for Jacob’s rebellion. His mother has recently died (possibly in a hurricane; the film suggests but ultimately withholds such details), and his despondent refinery-worker father Hollis (Paul) is barely holding it together, drinking too much and spending much of his free time trying to fix up the family’s damaged beach house in Galveston. This leaves Jacob and his 10-year-old brother Wes (Deke Garner) to largely fend for themselves. Eventually, child protective services gets involved, and Wes is placed in the care of Hollis’s sister-in-law Pam (Juliette Lewis), who previously cared for the boys when Hollis disappeared for three weeks after his wife’s death.

Wiggins anchors the film with a nuanced performance as a boy who has been forced to grow up to soon but who is ultimately still a boy. Thankfully, Candler frames his actions in such a way that the audience is invited to sympathize with his point of view but not identify with it. For instance, at one point, Jacob becomes convinced that if he can win an amateur dirt-bike race (thus excelling in a sport in which his mother always encouraged him), he will get his brother back. This is magical thinking, of course, as the two things have nothing to do with each other, but it is very real for Jacob. We can share his excitement at the prospect of winning back his brother and saving his family, but we also know that, however the race turns out, it won’t be that simple.

Hellion (2014) — Image via facebook.com/hellionfilmPaul also earns praise for his portrayal of Hollis, a man who genuinely loves his children and wants to do right by them but is overwhelmed by his grief and despondency. Hollis never behaves like the stock alcoholic-father character, terrorizing and beating his children, and he often makes concerted efforts to do the things a good parent would do, but his broken emotional state leads to negligence, and he relies too heavily on his 13-year-old son to take on responsibilities for which he is not ready. As a social worker tells Hollis at one point, he needs help, but he has his pride, and he resents having that help forced upon him. All of this comes through very clearly, without necessarily being articulated in words, in Paul’s committed performance.

Hellion — which Candler expanded into a feature from a six-minute short that screened at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival — is a slow film, and one is often unsure of where it is headed. Of course, life can be slow and uncertain, especially in the wake of a tragedy, and Candler laudably refuses to channel her characters’ confused and troubled actions into a contrived plot. The ending does slyly suggest a traditional cinematic sense of closure, until of course one realizes that there has been no real closure at all, just a convenient exit point for those of us who have briefly been invited into the lives of these characters. Beautifully shot by Brett Pawlak amidst the backdrop of the Texas Gulf Coast’s endless refineries, Hellion will interest viewers who have a taste for moody, character-driven films in which not everything is spelled out or wrapped up in a neat package. The Film Society of Minneapolis/Saint Paul is screening Hellion at the St. Anthony Main Theatre through July 24.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.