Jacob Wilson is a troubled kid. Like many teenagers, he's a rebel without a pause, constantly battling the adults in his life while figuring out who he is. But adolescent battles are far worse for Jacob than for most 13 year olds; his life can be as noisy, chaotic and dangerous as the motocross races he enters for a shot at stardom and a little respect from his family and friends.
Jacob (Josh Wiggins) is at the center of Hellion, Austin filmmaker Kat Candler's gritty new feature based on her 2012 short of the same title. We can't really blame Jacob for being the titular troublemaker. His mother is dead; his alcoholic father, Hollis (Aaron Paul), tries to take care of his sons, but needs to try harder. With his father physically or emotionally absent much of the time, Jacob must look after his little brother, Wes (Deke Garner). He also hangs out with a group of budding delinquents who entertain themselves with criminal mischief around their scruffy working-class neighborhood.
The Wilson family exists in a near constant state of crisis. As the film opens, Jacob has barely dodged juvenile detention for his petty crimes and is sentenced to tough-love program for young offenders. In no time he's in trouble again, and the cops and Child Protective Services come calling at the Wilson home. When they discover a pile of dysfunction amid the piles of trash and bottles of booze, they remove Wes from the home and place him with his aunt, Pam (Juliette Lewis).
Living in Pam's wealthier and more orderly world is better for Wes, but it won't solve the family's problems. Then again, it might -- while painful for everyone, Wes's absence is a form of tough love for Hollis and Jacob. Wes won't come home until his father and brother confront their problems and take responsibility for their lives.
As Hollis and Jacob try to get it together and reunite with Wes, Hellion tells a compelling story of failure and the search for redemption. If failure isn't supposed to be an option in parenting, in the Wilson family it seems like the only option. Hellion's strength is that it tells us exactly why, deeply probing the characters -- all heartbreakingly damaged -- and developing their backstories with great nuance and empathy. But amid all the suffering, we see glimmers of recovery -- moments of self awareness, reconciliation and personal growth.
My description may make Hellion sound like a predictable feel-good story of a family mending its wounds -- but it isn't. Hellion is taught, twisty and somewhat caustic, with a fair amount of suspense. It's often raucous and angry; Jacob's fixation with heavy-metal music sets the perfect tone for the movie, as do the buzzy, dirt-flinging motocross scenes.
Hellion's impoverished southeast Texas setting is an ideal backdrop for the story, and Candler uses this milieu to great effect. The Wilsons are very much products of their tattered industrial surroundings, from the stench of the refineries to the shopworn neighborhoods. The grime, it appears, has gotten under their skin and into their souls. (In contrast, Pam lives in an immaculate, tastefully furnished home on an immaculate, tastefully middle-class street. Her life seems a little less immaculate, but the stark difference between her world and Hollis's creates much of Hellion's dramatic tension.)
The cast of Hellion is great all around, but the standouts are Wiggins and Paul. For his young age (or any age), first-time actor Wiggins is a very mature performer; his take on Jacob is polished and fearless, demanding our sympathy for the character. Jacob is a complex young man who rages against adults and yet fiercely protects his brother. He is both wayward son and father figure, and Wiggins plays both personalities with great confidence.
Paul's role is just as complex -- Hollis means well, but the ravages of alcoholism keep him from doing well. His wild mood swings create some of the film's most frightening moments, made all the more frightening as Paul convincingly seethes and shouts and -- like father, like son -- rages against authority but mostly against his own demons.
Hellion's strengths are many, especially its great acting and well drawn characters. But the film loses some of its drive and direction toward the end; like a rebellious teen, some of its anger could be focused more productively. Although the climax and ending are inventive, I found them less believable than the rest of the story.
Still, Candler has done an admirable job of expanding her short into a solid feature. Hellion is a credible portrait of beaten-down lives and a sensitive take on the pressures of growing up in a broken family.
Austin/Texas connections: Hellion was filmed in the Houston and Galveston area. Most of the cast and crew live in Austin, including Kat Candler and Jonny Mars, who plays Hollis's friend Duncan (and the father character, Bill, in the Hellion short). Several other Texas actors appear in minor roles. Hellion won the Narrative Feature Competition Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Dallas International Film Festival. Candler won a SXSW Gamechanger Award -- Special Mention at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.