Kat Candler’s feature Hellion, based on her 2012 short film of the same name, was one of the titles at this year’s Sundance that I was most looking forward to. The short, about three young boys being raised by a single father who’s not around or emotionally engaged enough to keep them from getting into trouble, had a naturalistic honesty to it that I found very intriguing; it left me wanting to know more about these people and their lives. Given a lot more room to explore this through a feature-length film, she tells this story from the perspective of her troubled 13-year-old protagonist, played by newcomer Josh Wiggins in a powerful breakout performance.
Wiggins plays Jacob, a kid growing up in a refinery town in Southeast Texas, struggling to overcome both his mother’s death in a tragic car accident a year earlier, and the emotional absence of his father, Hollis (Aaron Paul, who’s simply terrific here), who’s still reeling from the loss of his wife. Jacob acts out his own anger and grief through a series of delinquent shenanigans around town with his “crew” of buddies that kicks off with a stellar, heavy-metal infused opening sequence that kicks us straight into Jacob’s rage. When he ropes in his sweetly trusting younger brother Wes (Deke Garner) into the action, CPS gets involved and removes Wes to place him with the boys’ Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis), Hollis and Jacob are forced to take a long, hard look at their own choices to find a way to move on despite the gaping hole tragedy has ripped out of their lives.
It all sounds simple enough from a story standpoint, but Candler manages to interweave layers of complexity into these characters that elevate this tale beyond the surface level. These people feel real and honest in every respect; they could be you or me or anyone we know who’s drowning in grief and can’t see the way back to the surface to breathe again without every moment smacking you with what’s been taken in the blink of an eye, the crash of metal, the stop of a heart beating. Like we all do, sometimes Hollis and Jacob make good choices, sometimes they intend to follow the right path and don’t, and other times you have to just shake your head in sympathy – and perhaps recognition – as Candler skillfully navigates them along the path of her story, revealing our own buried pains and heartaches as we connect with theirs.
Performances all the way around are solid and compelling. Of course you’d expect nothing less out of the likes of Paul and Lewis, both veteran actors who’ve earned their accolades; they’re both given several meaty scenes, emotionally speaking, but they act with restraint and careful measure, avoiding scenery chewing in favor of the real and honest. What surprises here is how the young actors who have to perform alongside such strong adult leads hold their own on screen.
Wiggins is just phenomenally impressive, particularly given that he’s never acted before. Perhaps that lack of overall experience allowed the beautifully raw and natural talent we see on screen to come to fruition, because there’s just never a moment where his acting feels forced or precious. Jacob is by turns frustrating and funny, here glowing with intense anger that could flare out at any moment, there bearing the emotional detachment of trauma and loss with a staunch resignation, a disdainful shrug that says, “You can’t hurt me anymore than I already am, but go ahead, man. You give it your best shot.” As the film progresses, Wiggins reveals cracks in Jacob’s armor in the most minute ways: A flinch. A sideways glance that bears the weight of a thousand things he’d like to scream. A clenched jaw. A flash of rage in his eyes, tucked away again so quickly you’re almost not sure it was ever there. This young man has a rare natural talent, and one I hope to see a great deal more of in the future.
The young men who play Jacob’s crew of buddies are all solid, but I need to particularly call attention to Dalton Sutton, who plays Lance, a character who starts out as what you think is just going to be the stereotypical husky, wisecracking sidekick of the pack. An unexpected turn in the story, though, causes a shift in his character that would be a challenge for many experienced adult actors to pull off, and Candler skillfully rachets up the tension of Lance’s own tragic piece of this tale bit by bit through this shift, leading her young actor to a shocking and explosive moment that had me on the edge of my seat.
Technically speaking, Candler goes the route of keeping things very natural in outdoor scenes, but opts for darker lighting and color design in the interior of the family’s home. I expect she made this choice to allow the lighting and color to reflect the emotions those places evoke in her young protagonist in particular, and it works very well. The outside scenes of Jacob and his friends practicing motor-cross, running around town, roughhousing, and roaming their world have a sense of youthful freedom and light, whereas the interior scenes feel blackly oppressive and saturated with loss and grief.
What most impressed me about Hellion was Candler’s skill at controlling the story’s emotional arc. This is a story about a family tragically broken by loss and overwhelming grief, and it could have easily taken a Hallmark movie shift into the melodramatic and clichéd. Candler so seamlessly hits the emotional notes every step of the way that you don’t even realize where she’s taking you until the film hits its final act, when it punches you in the gut and leaves you breathless and aching in your soul. It’s just masterful. The ability to write and direct in this way is something I don’t see enough of in independent film, and it marks Candler as not just a filmmaker to watch, but one who’s landed, and is here to take us along for the ride with her.