Review by: Bill Graham
Children are a fascinating subject matter because their youth make the absurd seem ordinary. We expect them to not understand the rules of our world. That everything isn’t easily solved. You can’t just steal what you want, but youth makes you ignorant of these things. That’s the path Hellion takes. We follow a family on the brink of implosion. Jacob, 13, is obsessed with motorcross and it peppers his reality. When he’s not getting into trouble with his little posse of three equally juvenile friends, he’s involving his little brother Wes. Their dad, Hollis, nearly abandoned his children after their mother suddenly died, is back at home but when he’s not working he’s drinking his feelings away. He’s not the caretaker they need.
The film is shot with honesty. Everything in the family’s life is dirty and run down. Jacob’s only escape from this small town is either trouble or motorcross, and he excels at each. But everything changes when Child Protective Services shows up and their family is torn apart. Wes, who looks up to his brother but isn’t as gung-ho without a push, is staying with his Aunt Pam nearby. That’s when Hollis, suddenly awakened to the fact that his life is in shambles, attempts to correct his ways and piece back his family.
Aaron Paul gives a suitably broken performance as Hollis that perhaps stuck a bit too closely to the star-making turn he portrayed in Breaking Bad as Jessie. There in the final season he was just as distant and uncommunicative. He draws our eyes, filmed with naturalistic lighting, and we shudder in response. He’s a sad sight. But the glimmer of hope is Jacob, powerfully performed by newcomer Josh Wiggins. He’s the fresh-faced kid you think is harmless until his wild side shows through when he’s burning a pile of pallets in a field. He’s got a tragic outlook that accurately reflects his broken home and you can’t help but wonder as you’re watching him whether you’ve seen him in something else. Surely he’s acted before? Alas, he hasn’t, which is all the more remarkable. I particularly loved some of the smaller details of his character, like how he tries to talk through feelings with his brother and references motorcross. People use what they know, and despite his brother not quite getting the message we get the sense there’s a connectedness beyond just blood.
Jacob is determined to put his family back together through any means, and the twist and turns provided by writer/director Kat Candler nearly throws the film off-kilter. It’s the kind of sudden change that is hinted at but rarely observed in films. That leaves us shaken and disturbed to our core. Children can do extraordinary things and, untethered, they are often susceptible to natural influences and gut instincts. Hellion is flawlessly performed amidst a disturbing and raucous backdrop of juvenile antics and hard-hitting drama.
*Screened at the 2014 Dallas International Film Festival*