Review: Hellion (Sundance 2014)
PLOT: Thirteen year old Jacob (Josh Wiggins) has three interests: dirt bike racing, heavy metal, and raising hell. His delinquent behavior gets him put on probation, with his next infraction threatening to land him in juvie. Making matters worse is that his recently widowed father (Aaron Paul) is too devastated by his wife's death to keep Jacob in line. When social services takes away Jacob's beloved younger brother Wes (Deke Garner) sending him to live with his Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis) , Jacob, for the first time in his life, has to take responsibility for his behavior if he wants to reunite his broken family.
REVIEW: Like WHIPLASH, HELLION has its roots as an acclaimed Sundance short, having now been turned into a full-fledged feature that- judging by the early buzz- is a breakout hit waiting to happen. For one thing, it has a meaty supporting role for BREAKING BAD's Aaron Paul- who also produced. That said, HELLION firmly belongs to Josh Wiggins as the thirteen-year-old trouble maker.
Unbelievably, this is Wiggins first film. According to the press notes, he'd only ever acted in a friend's YouTube videos, but he's great in a complicated role. As the title suggests, Jacob's a bit of a little shit, sneaking out of his house to trash cars or set fires with his similarly delinquent friends. Often, a character like Jacob would be repellent but Wiggins gives him a soul, making you believe that somewhere deep down he's not that bad a kid and might not be beyond saving.
His best quality is his protective relationship with his sensitive brother Wes- played in another really good child performance by Deke Garner- who apparently played the Jacob part in the short back in 2012. Their relationship is loving if toxic, in that Jacob brings his adoring brother along for his petty crimes, putting him in one dangerous situation after another. It's a testament to writer-director Kat Candler that despite it the fact that Jacob is clearly a bad influence on Wes, once they're separated you always kind of root for them to be reunited.
Aaron Paul is also really good as the boys' father. Having gone to seed after the death of his wife, which included abandoning his boys for a time, he's now trying to be the father they need even if he's too heartbroken to be much use. Like Jacob, this could have been another meandering, hard-to-like character, but Paul makes you believe in the character's essential decency, and again- you want this family to stay together. Juliette Lewis gets a really good role as Aunt Pam, who becomes Wes' custodian and starts to enjoy being a mother. Once again- she could have been portrayed as some kind of villain but she's always sympathetic and Lewis hasn't been this likable in years.
Like many other Sundance breakouts, Kat Candler's clearly a director to watch. The Texas setting gives the film a unique flavor reminiscent of executive producer Jeff Nichols' own SHOTGUN STORIES. There's an air of authenticity in the film- from the peripheral characters, to the location shooting and more. One expects big things from Candler in the future.
HELLION really is one of the fest's early gems, and will likely be a hot acquisition title due to the presence of Paul. Hopefully this one gets a solid release as it will likely strike a chord with viewers who will appreciate this unsentimental coming-of-age tale, which steadfastly avoids all the usual Hollywood trappings of the genre and always goes in unexpected directions.