by Kathie Smith
There is a thread of social realism that runs through American independent movies—dramas focusing on the underserved and filmed with feet on the ground. A.O. Scott highlighted this trend in a New York Times article five years ago, earmarking the films of Ramin Bahrani and Kelly Reichardt as neo-neo realism. This current, small as it might be, has since continued with an edge of gritty affectation in films like Winter’s Bone, Short Term 12, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Mud, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Blue Ruin, and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, to varying degrees of success. Kat Candler’s Hellion, a stark coming-of-age drama, meets if not surpasses the uncompromising atmosphere and nuanced performances of some of the best films on this list, but unfortunately allows these attributes to get buried in the plot’s tactical maneuvers and heavy-handed dramatic bullet points.
The Film Society of Minneapolis/St Paul
Director: Kat Candler
Producers: Jonathan Duffy, Kelly Williams
Writer: Kat Candler
Cinematographer: Brett Pawlak
Editor: Alan Canant
Cast: Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, Josh Wiggins, Deke Garner, Dalton Sutton, Camron Owens, Dylan Cole
Premiere: January 17, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 13, 2014
US Distributor: Sundance Selects
Set in the rural outback of East Texas, Hellion draws its title from 13-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins), a young tough who has dreams of dirt bike stardom but is on a destructive path of juvenile delinquency. As if determined to make a daily statement on his father’s emotional and physical absence, Jacob cavalierly destroys cars, sets stuff on fire, and rides roughshod on his motorbike, often with his younger and impressionable brother Wes (Deke Garner) in tow. Aggression is Jacob’s only outlet for expressing his grief for his dead mother and his disappointment with his unreachable father Hollis (Aaron Paul)—behavior reinforced by both his friends and his father. But his brother Wes is a more tender soul who we catch reading The Swiss Family Robinson (an obvious allegorical nod to his desire to survive) and practicing silly dance moves to an inane pop song.
Hellion aims to be a snapshot of a family on a precipice with Hollis in a bubble of alcoholism, Jacob one step away from being locked up in juvenile detention, and Wes treading water in the wake. When Child Protection Services comes over for an unannounced visit, they find an unsupervised hovel and promptly drag Wes away to his aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis). Hollis, hitting something close to rock bottom, knows he has to change in order to get his son back, but it may be too late, and Jacob’s own attempts to “make it right” are blurred by his inability to see the big picture. Packed with emblems of unhealthy male behavior and masculine psychology, Hellion forms a clichéd checklist of guns, beer, power tools, and violence, even propping Hollis up as the hometown baseball star who never made good. The keynote tragedy that you know is waiting in this social minefield feels like an unnecessary domino in the chain of events. The movie seems to buy into the pipedream that everything was fine and flowery before Hollis’ wife died, but the dark currents running through both Hollis and Jacob seem far too deep to have spontaneously generated.
The movie opens with an impressive crosscut barrage between a Friday night high school football game and a vandalistic rampage in the parking lot, after which it settles into a more observational mode. The quieter moments in Hellion allow the performances to shine, especially young Wiggins (in his first role), who carries most of the movie on his shoulders. His adolescent vulnerability and his potent hostility seem to be brewing just below a very fragile surface. Honors are also earned by Paul—even though the brooding is laid on a little thick at times, it is still a step up from Need for Speed—and Lewis, cast against type by playing the stable adult. But the material has its limits for Lewis and Paul, who are both rendered in one dimension and are forced to deliver flat lines like, “Your mom would have been real proud of you.” In this vein, Hellion feels very familiar, employing signifiers overused in movies and television: the sympathetic patriarch who has lost his way, the misguided youth with little or no safety net, and the collective collateral damage to society and innocent individuals.
Realism is a term that should be used cautiously when it comes to movies, but it is usually found in those moments that engage the audience emotionally almost without conscious questioning. (I would personally give Reichardt’s Night Moves a vote for this sort of unexpected wallop.) Hellion gives us a glimpse into Jacob’s raw and bewildering world, but it is all too brief. Better examples of contemporary social realism (especially in the range of youth-in-peril) can be found across the pond in the UK with such films as Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, Shane Meadows’ This is England, and Clio Barnard’s devastating The Selfish Giant, all working from the legacy of the British New Wave and kitchen sink dramas. Hellion stops short of taking too many risks, following a predestine groove all the way to a false sense of resolution. As a result, it leaves you feeling like the glass is half empty with Candler’s obvious talents.