A poignant tale of a broken family set to a ripping metal soundtrack.
Boasting grimy imagery, a primal, tightly-written script, and a breakout performance by a promising young newcomer, Kat Candler’s Hellion–an expansion of her 2012 short that tore up the festival circuit–is the best juvenile delinquent film since last year’s indie darling, Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12. It captures the madness the boredom of a small, nowheresville town can elicit in restless teens and examines the inextricable link shared by a family in mourning.
In a standout performance, first-timer Josh Wiggins (discovered by Candler on Youtube) plays Jacob, a 13-year-old troublemaker who lives in the Southeast Texas town of Port Arthur with his younger brother, Wes (Deke Garner), and their alcoholic, widower dad, Hollis (Aaron Paul). When we meet the family, it’s quickly apparent that they haven’t shaken the effects of their mother’s passing. Hollis is trying his hardest to stop drinking away his problems, and Jacob wastes his time smashing trucks with baseball bats, setting things on fire, and doing other stuff troubled teens in indie movies do.
Little Wes is less troubled than his dad and brother, but Jacob insists on dragging him along on his daily knucklehead hijinks, acting as a poisonous influence while, more importantly, putting Wes in danger. Eventually, Child Protection Services catch wind of the unhealthy environment Hollis and Jacob have created for Wes and transfer him into the care of his aunt, Pam (Juliette Lewis). With Wes out of the house and Pam threatening to move far away, separating the family forever, Hollis spirals down into the bottoms of bottles and Jacob becomes more reckless and frustrated than ever.
The absence of Jacob’s mom is the movie’s foundation, driving the story even in its quietest moments: when Hollis scolds Jacob in his pickup truck, ordering him to “take responsibility”; when Jacob stares at Hollis with a defiant snarl because he doesn’t want to eat his sandwich. Through all the tension, we know they’d connect if only they could admit to each other what’s really eating them up on the inside.
“I miss her.”
“I miss her, too.”
Candler sets the dusty, muggy town of Port Arthur to a furious metal soundtrack including the likes of Metallica and Slayer. It’s an unusual mix, but one that turns out to be a match made in heaven. Watching Jacob tear across a motocross course on his dirt bike (his only productive hobby) while crunchy guitars blast on the speakers is a thrill, and the obligatory lens flare from the sun gives everything a nostalgic glow that’ll have you missing the days when you could just go outside with your friends and roll around in the muck for fun. All in all, Candler and her team’s presentation is top-notch and stirringly atmospheric.
Wiggins is a superstar in his debut, capturing the volcanic nature of teens harboring too much energy for their undeveloped bodies to contain. He makes good decisions and reacts well to what he’s given his more experienced adult counterparts. Paul played a young punk himself in the role of his career in Breaking Bad, and he slips into the role of flawed father figure nicely here. Lewis is pleasingly cast against-type, playing perhaps her most chemically balanced character ever with honesty and naturalism. She’s a wonderful surprise and overachieves in a role that could have been one-note.
The way the film wraps up feels a bit odd, with a home invasion sequence feeling tonally dissonant. Lewis thankfully saves the otherwise overblown scene with a wonderfully grounded reaction, and Wiggins follows suit. While the ending could have been a knockout had it gone in a gutsier, off-the-beaten-path direction, it still manages to emphasize the film’s poignant message: A broken family is still a family.