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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance 2014 Review: Hellion

Hellion

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.

One Response to “Sundance 2014 Review: Hellion”

  1. Tim F. says:

    Great review, Kim! I saw HELLION this week as well and was equally impressed with they way it tugs at our emotions in an honest, classical way like the big screen dramas of the 40’s & 50’s. I’ve read a couple of knee-jerk reviews where the critics describe the lead character’s emotionalism as borderline sappy, but I think their reaction stems from the fact that they aren’t used to seeing large emotional swings in male characters in modern day films. What’s refreshing to us is, I think, foreign to them.

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MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

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