It's a somewhat glib, reductive thought, but the archetype of the Sundance indie film (apart from being cutesy and unbearably quirky) often can be summed up in its miserablist bleakness. And if some Park City indies can sometimes be defined by their dark, depressing nature with few rays of hope, "Hellion" (which premiered earlier this year at Sundance) may not fit that bill exactly, but it sure comes close.
In a small, rural Southeast Texas town outside of Galveston, Hollis (Aaron Paul), a single father still reeling from the death of his wife, struggles to keep his life together while raising his two young boys. While the youngest, Wes, is a quiet, good, impressionable little kid, the 13-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins), as the title of the film suggests, is an out-of-control hellraiser, whose volatile behavior is ripping the already tenuous fabric of this fractured family apart. Weaned on Metallica and motocross and with zero parental supervision, Jacob and his latchkey crew of delinquent friends trash things out of boredom, frustration and the innate anger they hold inside because of the dire circumstances of their lives. It's not long before the spiraling Jacob and his teenage angst make everything worse, as he lands in a center for boys that is one step below the scary world of juvenile detention. Haunted by the demons of booze that help him cope, Hollis does his children little favors, and when Child Protective Services eventually takes Wes away, putting him into the care of his aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis), it feels like an inevitability (no to mention an dark indie certainty).
Based on a 6-minute film of the same name that appeared at Sundance in 2012 (edited by David Lowery, director of "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"), clearly the "Hellion" short was a test run for director Kat Candler's ("Black Metal," "Love Bug") feature-length effort of the same subject. But other than trying break your heart with dire, deck-stacked circumstances, “Hellion” doesn’t say a lot about the economically and emotionally troubled family in distress that we haven’t seen before.
Hollis is a deadbeat dad, albeit one with good intentions (of course), but the manner in which Candler tries to have it both ways is tricky. The fact of the matter is Hollis, like all people, is complex, but his ill-conceived behavior is often hard to swallow. And Aaron Paul puts in a decent performance, but it might be nice to see him doing something less tortured and brooding for once. Charged musically by Slayer, Metallica and other forms of angry metal, while many elements of Candler's pictures land well—the empathetic understanding of children, acutely capturing the misdirected rage and angst of teenage adolescence that rebels against anything you've got—the film is weighed down by a drab hopelessness played in a familiar key.
"Hellion" however, does possess strong characteristics in the form of performances—the teenager Josh Wiggins is definitely a stand-out that people will be talking about post-festival, and Juliette Lewis and the boys, Deke Garner, Jonny Mars and Walt Roberts, all deliver authentically convincing turns. But the film begs for something more.
Characterized by a slow, determined pace (which feels longer than its brisk 98 minutes), it takes a long time to warm up to “Hellion,” and just when it begins to hook you, like its protagonist, it makes some critical errors in judgment. In particular, a deeply frustrating and manipulative third act sequence of (near ridiculous) violence threatens to unravel the picture entirely. "Hellion" recovers slightly by going back to its brooding, emotional and character-driven strengths, but this contrived plot-driven sequence (seemingly engineered to add some last minute melodrama) certainly does act as a blight on a movie struggling to collect all its métiers into one cohesive ending.
Admittedly heartbreaking and moving in its final moments, “Hellion” just can’t quite convince or coalesce its ideas of struggle, pain and fury in a meaningful or new way. Our charitable human nature may empathize with everyone’s plight, but the recognition that much of its dismal sensibility is far too calculating and pre-destined is certainly disconcerting. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.