Of all the films in this year’s US Dramatic Competition at Sundance, Kat Candler’s HELLION was the one that most closely matched what’s become a festival template:
Aggressively shaky handheld camerawork: Check.
Small-town dysfunctional family (alcoholic/grief-stricken division): Check.
Third act sparked by violence: Check.
Rebellious yet sensitive and misunderstood young protagonist: Check.
Commercially successful actor paying indie dues: Check, in the person of Aaron Paul.
Promising newcomer: Check, that being young Josh Wiggins.
Wiggins plays the hellion of the title, 13-year old Jacob Wilson, son of Hollis (Paul) and older brother of adoring Wes (Deke Garner). The Wilsons haven’t been the same since Jacob’s mother died; Hollis went on a bender for weeks and deserted his boys, and although Hollis is now earnestly trying to dry out and make things right, Jacob has never forgiven him. Increasingly, Jacob is acting out in a big way, roaming around with his group of other screwed-up young guys and getting into trouble with the law. The only activity that gives him solace is motocross, which he pursues heedless of his own safety.
As Jacob’s mishehavior becomes more serious, the system forces tough love on the Wilsons, putting Wes in the custody of the boys’ aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis, for once playing a stable character), while Hollis takes away Jacob’s beloved bike. All of this just increases the pressure building within the boy, and his desperation has inevitably painful results.
Hellion is well executed, especially by its actors, but it’s the indie version of a CBS procedural episode, entirely bound by its format. That’s not to say that Candler is calculatingly aping the many films that have come before hers–on the contrary, no doubt Hellion comes from a completely sincere place. But for a viewer who’s been down this road before, there’s little sense of surprise or discovery to be had.
The cast is thoroughly committed. Aaron Paul, aged up and out of shape, is believably desperate and miserable as Hollis tries to find a way beyond his past mistakes and through his misery to help his boys, and although the material doesn’t give him the opportunities of his best-known work in television, the agony he conveys when he understands how his shortcomings have affected his children feels real. Lewis is the closest the film comes to a revelation, simply because she almost never gets to play normal people, and her simple determination to do what she can for her nephews is moving. Wiggins has the showcase part, and he provides the life-wire intensity the role needs, by turns vicious, sullen, vulnerable and hurt. Garner is also fine as the most innocent victim of the tumult going on around him.
Candler doesn’t step out of the box in terms of her filmmaking style. Brett Pawlak, who also shot Short Term 12, beats the handheld camerawork drum, and the soundtrack is loud with the metal Jacob prefers. At almost every step, the film opts for familiarity. Hellion means to be a disturbing, provocative experience, but it plays mostly as indie Muzak.