Sundance Movie Review: ‘Hellion’

Hellion

Film: Hellion
Directed by: Kat Candler
Starring: Aaron Paul, Josh Wiggins, Juliette Lewis

It’s rare for a film to treat father-son relationships and relationships between young men with the care and sensitivity seen in Hellion. What’s even more surprising is that the film comes from a promising new female writer/director in Kat Candler, expanding on her short from a few years ago.

Aaron Paul is obviously the big draw of the film as it’s one of his first starring roles following the finale of Breaking Bad (although Need for Speed will beat it into mainstream theaters) and he more or less proves why he’s going to be near the top of casting lists at every major studio for the next few years. He’s quietly effective as a deadbeat alcoholic father struggling to keep control of himself, let alone his two sons following the loss of their mother.

Paul’s vulnerable performance is somehow matched by the revelatory Josh Wiggins, making his acting debut as Paul’s motocross and heavy metal-obsessed 13-year-old son. His father’s lack of guidance has led him down the wrong path and his latest bout of vandalism lands him just one step away from juvenile detention. Worse yet is that his 10-year-old brother (Deke Garner, reprising his role from the short) looks up to him so much that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to join his brother’s “crew,” or so he calls the group of friends with whom he rides bikes, sets fires and destroys others’ personal property with.

Though I‘ve never felt the impulse to smash a stranger’s windshield in with a baseball bat, even during the most rebellious years of my adolescence, it’s hard not to relate to Wiggins’ character as he thrashes around his living room to the tune of Metallica’s “Battery” and dons his seemingly endless supply of Slayer and The Sword t-shirts as he cruises the streets, while Candler beautifully captures the glaring southeastern Texas sun, gravel roads and sun-dried fields.

Growing up in a small town is rough. Sometimes you just get bored and can’t come up with a better way to spend your time than buying a case of orange soda for the sole purpose of bashing them off a tee with a baseball bat. Hell, there’s even a make out scene set to “South of Heaven,” a feat I’ve always wanted to achieve but have never been quite able to accomplish. I suppose it’s never too late.

Candler’s most recent film was a short called Black Metal, which premiered at Sundance in 2013. And Hellion has proven to be just as resonant within the heavy metal community. Lars Ulrich identified with the characters in the film so much that he gave Candler a call to give her permission to use two Metallica classics in the soundtrack.

As an older brother, Wiggins knows that it’s his responsibility to protect and set a good example for his younger brother, especially when their father is rarely around, much less sober. He wants his brother to look up to him, cheer him on at his motocross races, and pick up on his musical taste. And yet, there’s no escaping the fact that Wiggins’s character is still a kid himself. He’s at the age where you’re supposed to make mistakes, and he sure as hell makes plenty of them. But as an older brother, when you make a mistake, it’s your younger brother who you’re most upset about disappointing.

When CPS comes along to check out the family’s pigsty of a house, the younger brother is taken away to live with his aunt (Juliette Lewis). All four involved characters go through their own identity crisis. Lewis seems to enjoy this newfound role of “mother,” while Wiggins begins pitching around the house and Paul finally puts a halt to his drinking.

I can generally tell when a film is written by a woman when the conversations and relationships between the men in the film resemble nothing close to how men actually interact with eachother in real life. Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids is a particularly grating recent example, though I imagine women feel similarly about virtually every male-written movie in existence. But Kat Candler gets it. I don’t know how or why she gets it, but she gets it.

Both Candler and Hellion should be on your radar, and here’s hoping the film finds distribution as it continues to make its way around the festival circuit. Given that Candler is based in Austin and lectures at the University of Texas, it’s probably safe to assume the film will next pop up at South by Southwest in March.

Grade: A

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