What turns an ordinary 13-year-old into a seething ball of rage? With “Hellion” — expanded from her 2012 Sundance-selected short — Texas-based helmer Kat Candler unpacks the inner turmoil behind acts of trespassing, vandalism and spontaneous aggression that threaten to send young Jacob down the wrong path in life. More sensitive than sensational, Candler’s debut doesn’t add much in the way of insight to the juvenile delinquency genre, but boasts a stunning breakthrough performance from newcomer Josh Wiggins as the troublemaker in question. Though tamer than it sounds, with support from “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul, the pic could connect with regionally inclined arthouse auds.
Paul plays the overwhelmed widower-dad in a family where (in perhaps the biggest change from the short) the mother’s absence is acutely felt; much of Jacob’s need to act out is explained by her death, the details of which the film guards until most emotionally advantageous moment. First, we see only his misbehavior, which explodes from the beginning with a seemingly unmotivated attack by Jacob and his friends on a pickup truck parked outside the local football stadium. As the kids destroy the vehicle with baseball bats and spray-paint bottles, heavy metal rages on the soundtrack — the musical analog to their fury.
But why so angry? The adults in the film are constantly telling Jacob how fortunate he is: lucky to be alive, lucky to be given a suspension instead of a juvenile prison sentence, lucky not to be taken from his father and placed in a foster home. But judging by the defiant scowl permanently etched on his face, Jacob doesn’t see it that way. He’s old enough to recognize the hypocrisy of the system (he has reason to roll his eyes when his alcohol-dependent dad tells him to take responsibility) and disempowered in a society crowded with rules and crawling with cops, none of which can bring back his mom.
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The closest maternal substitute Jacob’s world has to offer is his aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis, cast as the stable one among crazies for once). She’s heartbroken to see what’s become of her late sister’s family, but barely has the energy to care for Jacob’s younger brother, Wes (Deke Garner). It’s a grim environment in which to grow up, with Dad distracted and no role models to speak of. By the time a social worker shows up to evaluate the kids’ living conditions, sifting through cluttered cabinets and empty beer bottles, audiences have long since recognized the need for an intervention.
Shot in the southeast Texas town of Port Arthur, two hours outside of Houston or Galveston (where his mom dreamed of a better life for the family), “Hellion” captures the pressure to get out and make something of oneself, though Jacob’s only real option is motocross — a dangerous sport perfectly suited to his devil-may-care attitude. When not destroying other people’s property, Jacob and his friends spend their down time riding dirt bikes unsupervised.
Some kids do fine when left to their own devices, but between the agitated heavy-metal score and d.p. Brett Pawlak’s jittery camerawork (between this and “Short Term 12,” somebody get the man a tripod already), the audience finds itself in a state of nervous anticipation of what comes next. At each turn, “Hellion” reminds of the many factors working against Jacob, especially if he gets sent back to juvie, where a former classmate was recently stabbed to death.
Candler’s depiction of restless Southern childhood stands in stark contrast to the romantic reverie offered by Terrence Malick just three years back with “The Tree of Life,” which provides an especially fascinating comparison in terms of how rowdy youngsters drag their delicate younger siblings into the danger zone. “Hellion” offers a more conventional plot, but that is also its chief limitation, somehow reducing the complexity of its verite character study to relatively straightforward psychology.
Although Wiggins shows the riveting turmoil of a young Jean-Pierre Leaud, as well as a defiant intensity and hardened features that recall Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry,” the film seems too eager to tame him. A child this conflicted will take years to recover, and though Wiggins never once steps wrong in the role, the script oversimplifies things in the end.