Despite all of its wandering, loosely tied together stories and uneven pacing, there’s an odd sweetness to Kat Candler’s Hellion. Rather than broken characters focused solely on self-help and improving their own station, it’s an attempt to salvage a family even though that family may be too damaged to repair. Characters who do bad things but are good deep down is undoubtedly saccharine, but it works thanks to Candler’s sincere direction and earnest performances from lead actors Aaron Paul and Josh Wiggins. Hellion may be all over the place, but it’s charming enough to make us follow.
Jacob Wilson (Wiggins) is a 13-year-old delinquent who is one step away from juvenile hall. He and his friends spend their free time causing trouble around town, and Jacob is trying to rope his younger brother Wes (Deke Garner) into the gang. The two have little supervision after the death of their mother, and their father Hollis (Paul) is too despondent to be a fully responsible single parent, although he’s not brazenly neglectful nor is he abusive. The broken family becomes even more fragile when their mother’s sister Pam (Juliette Lewis) steps in to try and protect the innocent Wes, and Jacob and Hollis are left to confront their anger and self-loathing in order to restore the family unit.
There’s not much structure to Hellion in terms of building a well-paced plot. Candler will move between Jacob and Hollis with little rhyme or reason, and there’s never much urgency to the picture until the end. The picture meanders around, but she always keeps us hooked. The cinematography draws us with its lilting daylight scenes, harsh light of Jacob’s disciplinary school, the dimness of Hollis’ environments, and the fires of mayhem started by Jacob and his friends. I wish Candler had even gone even further with the music, which employs heavy metal but never enough of it to match the Jacob’s intensity.
But for all the places the film goes, we’re always walking alongside this lost family, and while Candler pushes hard on Jacob’s anger and Hollis’ depression, she never moves so far as to veer into the brazenly melodramatic. There are no villains here; even Pam isn’t completely out of line in believing that living in squalor with a troublemaker brother and distant father may not be the best environment for Wes. Still, we root for this family, not just because it’s nice to see families remain intact, but because they want it so badly, but their own pain—a completely understandable pain caused by the loss of a loved one—is threatening to tear them apart forever.
We also care because of Wiggins and Paul’s strong performances. With Hellion, Wiggins establishes himself as a young actor worth watching as he plays Jacob’s rage and hurt without ever going for a big, cloying moment. As for Paul, he’s absolutely convincing as a father who has crawled so far inside a beer can that he can’t even begin to heal, but we can still see how much he loves his kids, although he’s also keeping them at a distance. This is not a “brave” parent; Hollis is barely hanging on, and we’re almost left to wonder why no one is willing to help him.
The characters, the restraint, and the sympathetic tone are what keep Hellion from verging into the maudlin. Some viewers may feel that it crosses the line or that it’s too scattered to hold the weight of the situation. But for me, tenderness goes a long way, and for as poorly as these characters can behave, the tenderness still manages to emerge from a pain the Wilsons can barely handle. And it’s a pain they desperately need to conquer if there’s any hope of salvaging the family.
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