Basically, Hellion (opening today), will be important for two reasons. First, it proves that there is a career in action post-Breaking Bad for Aaron Paul. Second, it marks the beginning of what is sure to be a remarkable career for the young actor, Josh Wiggins. It's a raw, jarring character study that relies heavily on the complicated performances of both actors, and mostly succeeds.
Paul (best known as Walter White's partner-in-crime Jesse Pinkman on AMC's Breaking Bad) plays a father of two boys in rural Texas. In real life, we don't get people's full stories upon meeting them, unlike how things are usually instantly explained to us in movies. So when we meet Paul's character, Hollis Wilson, it feels authentic. We know only what we see: That he is a disheveled and somewhat stern man, struggling to provide a life and a living for his two sons, Jacob (Josh Wiggins) and Wes (Deke Garner). Slowly, patiently, the film reveals things about the characters that help explain how they got to this point and the decisions that they choose to make.
The "hellion" of the film's title refers to the older son, Jacob. He is a rebellious trouble-maker, who is a typical teenager in that he loathes his dad and disrespects most authority figures. Jacob idolizes a Motorcross racer and rides his own dirtbike. He hangs with a group of punks who light things on fire, read stolen porno mags and generally like to act up.
Though he is tough and troubled kid, he looks out for his younger brother, Wes, who idolizes him. When Child Protective Services comes around, Jacob finds himself separated from Wes, and desperate to get him back.
Never underestimating her audience, writer/director Kat Candler allows her movie to unfold in time. It is never blatantly stated what happened to the boy's mother, but when Hollis places flowers near a roadside cross, we are able to put two and two together. There are several subtleties like this sprinkled throughout the film that help define her characters and compel us to want to stay engaged.
But for all of its grit and honesty, several aspects of the movie seem uneven. Juliette Lewis's character for example, who shows up as a protective aunt, seems undercooked and flimsy. Through all of the event's that we witness in their lives, thinking back on it, I'm still not sure that Jacob goes through much change. He turns out to be mostly what we know about him from the beginning.
That being said (and without giving away major plot points), Josh Wiggins gives a fine performance, balancing rebellious teenage punk with vulnerable, broken child. We could easily dislike him and root for his transformation, but by the film's end, we understand him.
Better still, Hellion rejects going down cliched paths. When Hollis meets a nice woman giving him the eye at a bar, we fully expect that they will talk - or go to bed - or that she will have some larger importance. Nope. Hollis never acts on it, and the scene goes by forgotten in the bigger picture. It's little moments like that where Hellion excels. We don't always get the girl, we don't always win the race, and life most certainly doesn't always go as planned or lead towards a happy ending.
Hellion doesn't quite hit a home run, but it stands out.
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes, Not Rated
Starring: Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, Josh Wiggins, Deke Garner
Written & Directed by Kat Candler (Cicadas, Jumping Off Bridges)
Opens locally on Wednesday, July 11, 2014 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time