REVIEW: Hellion

14 06 2014

HellionRecently, the South has seen a bit of a revival at the cinema.  An emerging generation of filmmakers, headlined by Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green, have found the region’s rich heritage to be fertile grounds for stories largely passed over by the coast-focused Hollywood.

With “Hellion,” the latest film in this resurgence, it’s time to start including writer/director Kat Candler in the discussion of prominent figures produced by the movement.  Her latest film far outshines both “Mud” and “Joe,” two similar Southern coming-of-age stories, with the raw authenticity of its landscape and the affecting emotional vulnerability of its characters.  The only complaint I can muster about the film is a selfish one: I just wish the film had been made when I was still a teenager.

Candler sets “Hellion” just outside of my native Houston, and her portrayal of the area and its residents is absolutely pitch-perfect.  I felt as if I knew the foul-mouthed troublemaking adolescents at the center of the film from my own childhood.  These are not just character sketches, either; they rang so uncannily familiar that the teens seemed like real people pulled from dusty corners of my memory.

Though I never knew a family with the particular struggles faced by the Wilsons in “Hellion,” Candler’s impeccable script quickly made me feel deeply and passionately about their well-being.  It’s the rare film these days that jolts me out of being merely a complicit spectator and makes me feel like a stakeholder in the events playing out before my eyes.  Watching the drama as Aaron Paul’s Hollis attempts to get his act together, or as Josh Wiggins’ Jacob lashes out to keep his family intact unleashed reactions in me that were not only physiological but also physical.

Josh Wiggins in Hellion

Credit goes to Candler as well for directing the actors in the film to give delicate performances, which give her script the wings to soar.  The  gradually reveal the scar tissue that has built up over the years.  She gets some of the most potent acting we’ve seen yet from Aaron Paul, whose electric presence supercharges any project he takes.

Even though his Jesse Pinkman was often put through the ringer on television’s “Breaking Bad,” it often served to harden his character.  In “Hellion,” tough events nudge his Hollis towards a reckoning that ultimately uncovers the depth of his love.  His fights with alcoholism and emotional absence are not going to win him any “father of the year” awards, but Paul’s fragile display of humanity has us completely in his corner.

It’s a rare gift to draw talent out of young actors, particularly when they need to convey internal turmoil.  What Candler remarkably wrangles out of Josh Wiggins in his debut does more than supersede Tye Sheridan, whose work in “Mud” and “Joe” has won him widespread acclaim.  It’s in the league of “The 400 Blows” or “E.T.,” some masterful company to keep.

His Jacob often lashes out with delinquent behavior in response to the dissolution of his family as he once knew it.  After his mom passes, his father becomes a non-presence, and his younger brother is sent by CPS to live with his well-meaning aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis in a compassionate turn), life is upended for Jacob.  As the film unfolds, we begin to see his passion for motorcycle racing and wish to maintain some semblance of a family unit underneath all the troubling behaviors.

Even as his actions escalate to become more dangerous and damaging, Wiggins makes us care for Josh all the more and regret the company he keeps that push him further from his desired endgame.  He takes us through a crucible in the film, a tour de force that illuminates the pains of adolescence in a manner both highly specific and personalizing.   I’m not sure who between Paul, Wiggins, and Candler is to thank the most for the gift  of “Hellion,” but I rejoice in the fact that a film of such honesty and power has been made.  A-3halfstars


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