When we first meet Jacob, he’s acting like an asshole. There’s a big high school football game in the Texas town where he lives, so Jacob decides to destroy a pick-up truck and set it on fire. These are familiar antics in the annals of teenage rebellion, yet Jacob acts seem to act out with unpleasant malice (he also endangers his relatively innocent younger brother). Hellion, a dour drama from writer/director Kat Candler, is a feature-length dare to find sympathy for Jacob and his broken family. She is not quite successful since the script obscures character development in favor of slow-burn moments, plus the climax uneasily combines melodrama with realism.
Jacob (Josh Wiggins) has reasons for his nihilistic worldview. His mother died recently – the script never supplies a reason why – and his father Hollis (Aaron Paul) responded with a neglectful, alcoholic stupor. When Hollis collects Jacob from the police station, there’s the suggestion it’s the first time they’ve spoken in weeks. Instead of complete absence, Hollis drinks through his grief (he’s never physically abusive). There are half-hearted attempts to rekindle a relationship with Jacob and his brother Wes (Deke Garner), but the rebuilding goes to shit when Child Protective Services collects Wes and gives custody to Pam (Juliette Lewis), his relatively stable aunt. The differing parent styles are like an argument of nurture over nature: while Wes flourishes under Pam’s care, Jacob grows increasingly sullen and alienated. He wants to reclaim his pride with a motorcycle race, even if he sort of knows it won’t accomplish anything.
Set primarily around the dusty lower middle-class suburbs of East Texas, Hellion looks like bleak place where dreams go to die. In a way, Candler’s commitment to an oppressive tone is admirable: there’s no attempt to sugarcoat Jacob or his family, so his destructive behavior comes with with a sad sense of logic. There are long scenes where he and his friends jibe and hurt each other – growing pains at their finest – except here it goes a step further toward cruelty.
There’s an important scene where the guys take turns destroying soda cans with a baseball bat, and the activity is ruined by a friend whose parents are going through a divorce. Rather than hit the can, he takes the bat then destroys the trash can on which the can is sitting. Candler is showing how unchecked adolescent emotion can lead toward pointless violence: without any productive outlet, these kids indulge in the worst kind of behavior. It’s not an original point – Larry Clark’s Kids was similarly bleak – yet Hellion sells it through strong performances and authenticity. I was never quite like these kids, but well-observed moments tapped into feelings are that are both familiar and dormant.
Hellion was originally a short film, and it shows through Candler’s impressionistic, elliptical approach toward character development. With the confines of a short film, it’s easy to focus more on mood than story. A feature-length film, however, demands more than the suggestion of feeling; there must be a strong narrative to string it all together. Unfortunately, the scenes with Paul spin their wheels because it unfolds like a highlight reel of alcoholic depression: we watch Hollis as he struggles to rebuild his dream house in Galveston, six pack in hand. He speaks in platitudes with his children and sister-in-law, minus any exposition, so it’s as if Candler worries that convention will sully her commitment to a bleak, hopeless tone. The music is a mix of post-rock and heavy metal, and the cues are distracting since the score provides a context that the script does not. At its worst, Hellion can feel like a forgotten Metallica music video, except with marginally more dialogue.
Jacob begins the film by refusing to accept responsibility for his actions, and Hellion ends with him learning how that acceptance is an important part of being a young man. Heroism and sacrifice does not accompany this epiphany: instead, Candler puts Jacob in a horrifying climax where he has no choice but to discover his moral compass. This climax, which borrows elements from a thriller and even horror, crosses a line into unintentional parody since the first two acts do not set up for it adequately. I knew I should have felt horrified, and instead I felt disbelief at the chaotic, misogynistic violence. While Jacob and Hollis both feel hopeless, the difference between them is that Hollis has more a choice. Hellion is all about how fathers and sons hurt more than just each other, but without much curiosity it’s hardly worth the journey.