REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
The aptly-titled “Hellion” focuses on a rowdy, young miscreant. Jacob Wilson (Josh Wiggins) is a 13-year old, growing up in Port Arthur, an East Texas coastal town. He is an avid dirt bike racer and is enthralled with heavy metal music.
His working class dad, Hollis (Aaron Paul), is a bereaved widower. He is struggling to raise Jacob and his 10-year old brother, Wes (Deke Garner).The film intimates that Hollis was once a baseball player within this jock-loving community. Since his wife’s untimely death, he has spiraled downward into alcoholism and clinical depression. At one juncture, he even abandoned his young sons to go on an extended booze bender in Houston, two hours away. It seems that he was intent on drinking himself to death.
Hollis loves his sons, but is too overwhelmed by his own demons to be much of a dad. His childless sister-in-law, Pam (Juliette Lewis), does her best to provide a surrogate mother figure.
Without the benefit of any parental role models, Jacob is hopelessly lost. He is hovering, somewhere equidistant between being an intemperate prankster and a hard-core juvenile delinquent. One night, Jacob’s posse, including his younger sibling, bicycle to a local sports stadium. Inside, the townsfolk participate in the social ritual of attending a high school football game. Meanwhile, Jacob and his sidekicks are engaged in the anti-social ritual of vandalizing a pick-up truck with baseball bats and spray paint. What motivates them? Have they targeted a specific vehicle for revenge? Is it an example of unfocused adolescent angst? Or are these kids just plain rotten?
When Jacob is subsequently apprehended by police, he is sentenced to probation. This requires him to spend his days in a confined disciplinary facility. As a no-nonsense officer warns Jacob, he is now one step away from being sent to juvenile lock-up next door. Through the barb-wire fence, Jacob witnesses one of his classmates, who is imprisoned at the contiguous facility, being stabbed to death.
Meanwhile, a social worker from Child Services visits the Wilson household. She is appalled by what she sees. The place is a disheveled pig-sty. As a consequence, Wes is taken into protective custody.
“Hellion” demonstrates a keen understanding of the inner psyche of males, particularly those of neo-pubescents. It has an earnest quality that suggests a lived-in, autobiographical component. You may be surprised to discover that the writer/director of “Hellion” turns out to be a woman. Kat Handler is a native of Atlanta, who is currently on the faculty of the University of Texas. Handler elicits naturalistic performances from her cast. The acting more than compensates for a somewhat underdeveloped screenplay and bare-bones production values.
First and foremost is the impressive screen debut by Josh Wiggins. He is smoldering with pent-up rage and destructive impulses. Yet, his nuanced depiction conveys that he embodies redeeming qualities and is inherently decent.
Aaron Paul is a two time Emmy-winner for his supporting role as a meth addict on cable television’s “Breaking Bad.” This represents his first foray into the world of indie films. Paul seems perfectly at ease in this altogether different context. Neophyte, Deke Garner, registers as a still sweet and innocent kid. He is trying to curry his older brother’s approbation, while resisting the corrupting influence of his wayward sibling.
Juliette Lewis portrays the only significant female character in this testosterone-dominated microcosm. She is limited to a circumscribed, albeit pivotal role. At 41, Lewis retains all the sassy verve that she first projected as a teen vamp in “Cape Fear” and later as a homicidal vixen in “Natural Born Killers.” Yet in this film, her edgy persona is tempered by a more mature and decidedly more nurturing quality. Given her history of playing societal misfits, it is fascinating to watch Lewis as the most mainstream member of a dysfunctional family.
Further contributory to the film’s pervasive sense of verisimilitude are the supporting performances provided by the non-actors recruited as Jacob’s peers. This includes Darlton Sutton, Camron Owens and Dylan Cole.
“Hellion” made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, expanded from a short of the same name. I did notice that the credits list Jeff Nichols as one of the film’s executive producers. Nichols wrote and directed “Mud,” an excellent 2013 Texas-based film with Matthew McConaughey. That work also revolved around a young boy struggling with the challenges of adolescence. I found myself wondering what role Nichols played in bringing this film to fruition as a feature.
“Hellion” has the misfortune of coming out a week before “Boyhood.” The latter is yet another film set in small town Texas, involving a young male, who is coming of age. “Hellion” will no doubt be eclipsed by the much-ballyhooed Richard Linklater film.
Nevertheless, enriched by some resonant performances, “Hellion” is an engaging indie that is well worth seeing in its own right.
*** No MPAA Rating 94 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.