Hellion is a dour, occasionally hopeless movie that makes you feel about as bad as any movie in a long time. It is a bleak little treasure, which is why it's been given a limited release and is available on VOD as well as in theaters. It's hard to imagine exhibitors putting this one on the screen next to the latest Marvel comics epic. But it may develop a following based on its good performances and word of mouth.
That is, I certainly hope so. In an era where two or three movies battle for the public's attention while the rest disappear down the proverbial rabbit hole, here's a little story about a broken family in Texas trying to stick together. One of the kids, Jacob (Josh Wiggins, who reminds me of a pocket Matt Damon), has a half-assed dream of becoming a motocross champion, thinking that he can bring some self-respect to his fractured household if he can qualify for the nationals.
Jacob is a hard kid to like. He's a 13-year-old vandal, and he sets a bad example for his much younger brother Wes (Deke Garner). As we watch him, though, we learn that he's just a simple kid. When he's not destroying property, he's home listening to heavy metal music and watching cartoons. Jacob has a good heart, but he doesn't know what to do with himself. He and his friends loiter around a park, looking at porn magazines and harassing girls; the bits of conversation we pick up are about step-dads and fights and other broken families. His friend Lance (Dalton Sutton) is a giant and a bully, his festering violence always threatening to disrupt their lazy afternoons.
Jacob's father (Aaron Paul) is in a limbo after his wife's death, drinking too much and disappearing for long periods of time. He thinks nothing of leaving Jacob to look after Wes, which draws the attention of a case worker who decides to separate the boys and send the youngest to live with an aunt (Juliette Lewis). Jacob takes this all personally; he's angry at his father for not being responsible, and angry at himself for not looking after Wes.
The whole business of Jacob's motocross fantasy would take up more of commercially minded movie, but in Hellion it plays on the periphery. Jacob can no more qualify for the nationals than he can finish a family meal without getting into a fight with his dad. Wiggins and Paul are so raw and realistic that it's uncomfortable to see them together. We know early on there will be no scene of them curing their problems with a game of catch.
The movie was directed with a loving touch by Kat Candler, who also wrote the screenplay (and originally shot Hellion as a short in 2012). Candler has an artist's impulse to go anti-Hollywood, for there are no subplots about Jacob trying to win the love of a rich girl, or saving his father from ruin. Jacob's not charming, and doesn't have a witty sense of humor. Candler wants us to understand the pain beneath the skin of this punk, and we eventually do. The desperation on his face when he tries to reconnect with Wes but is turned away by his aunt is heartbreaking.
Candler presents the film in a risky and intriguing manner: She allows no light to shine from these people. We feel that these characters, even the kids, are deadened inside. The whole movie has a deadness at its center - lack of income, dysfunction, aimlessness, combine to create the atmosphere for these kids to grow in. Wes is developing an imagination - he likes pirates and enjoys reading 'The Swiss Family Robinson,' perhaps envying that family's ability to stick together during tough times - so maybe there's hope for him. Jacob, though, seems destined to do the wrong thing, just like his father. Their lives are marked by long stretches of boredom, with occasional outbreaks of violence, and back to boredom.
The movie was shot in Texas last year, but it could have been shot in my Massachusetts neighborhood of the 1980s. I knew kids like Jacob and his friends, knew about their broken families. Strangely, the kids I knew all loved motocross, too. They may not have had decent clothes and their grades were bad, but they all owned a nice dirt bike, a guilt gift, perhaps, from a visiting dad trying to make up for the time he was gone. The bikes, I assume, represented a kind of freedom, a way to speed past their dull, somewhat painful life.
Hellion is a movie to appreciate. It's about people who are basically decent but adrift, who are too beaten down to have much hope. It may feel like movies we've seen before, but it's not predictable and doesn't rely on Hollywood staples. Kat Candler cares too much about these characters to treat them cheaply. She's offered us something realistic, and in this day and age, realism is an exotic flavor to be savored.