This heavy-hearted, heavy-metal movie about an East Texas family fractured by grief and, later on, child protective services is the rare flick that refuses to let the audience to feel sorry for its characters or feel superior to them. There is Jacob (Josh Wiggins), a 13-year-old shit-kicker painfully aware that no one expects much out of him, and his younger brother Wes (Deke Garner), age 10, bookish (though not above setting a stack of wooden pallets on fire for some street cred) and the one that the community thinks still has a fighting chance of not ending up a fuck-around, which is its own kind of awful responsibility for a kid approaching adolescence.
And there's Hollis (Aaron Paul), their father, an alcoholic still navigating waking up and going to work after the loss of his wife and mother to his kids, trying his hardest to be capital-D dad but failing too often, especially when he's drinking too much and leaving the kids to their own devices. Doting in the background and so goddamned responsible all the time is Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis), their mom's sister, simultaneously a security blanket and a looming threat that might pull the family apart for good if she retains custody of Wes.
Director/writer Kat Candler constructs "Hellion's" narrative out of a series of small scenes that would be dubbed "extraneous" or "unnecessary" by wet-sandwich types that teach screenwriting at film school and crow interminably about "structure," but the accumulation of these little moments, such as, say, Jacob and Wes home alone, ecstatically bouncing up and down on the couch headbanging to Metallica's 'Battery' and eating whipped cream on white bread, only to be caught by a cop and a woman from CPS who come to the door, engender the movie with specificity, and establish a sense that at any moment things will go bad for good.
"Hellion" is a quiet character sketch and then, without warning, a gritty melodrama and then back again. These are unorthodox dramatic rhythms for a movie, but they accurately reflect the emotional oscillations of people who life has put up against a wall.
"Hellion" also understands adolescent rage: where it comes from and how it bubbles up to the surface, almost always at the wrong moment in the wrong way and at the wrong person. Consider a scene in which Jacob's friends, hilarious teenaged pricks who say "bitch" a lot and look at porn and ride dirtbikes, all end up in a brawl. It begins when Lance (Dalton Sutton), a husky linebacker of a teen who is part Jonah Hill in "Superbad" and part John Wayne Gacy, mercilessly beats a trashcan with a baseball bat for no good reason. He's mad at something, probably everything. It scares Jacob, who walks away from it, because he's afraid and because he's afraid to show that he's afraid. When one of Jacob's friends asks what's wrong, the two get into a fistfight and then the whole gang is beating up on each other, over what exactly?
Scenes like this echo other meandering metal movies such as "River's Edge" or "Gummo," but "Hellion" cares about something other than not caring. It wants its characters to do better but it also understands that change takes time, more than a 94-minute feature can honestly illustrate, and so, Candler refuses to turn her characters into symbols or caricatures (rednecks, crackers, heshers, white trash, whatever). Instead, "Hellion" chugs through a series of near catalysts that push everything toward a slow-burn-inciting incident—which is to say, it's a bit more like real life.
Josh Wiggins as Jacob holds caves of pain and anger behind his eyes and Candler's camera affords him a kind of hard-assed androgyny; he's both tough and touching, scowling yet about to cry, and he only has one monologue, which is about the number of monologues a 13-year-old like Jacob would realistically deliver in his lifetime. Aaron Paul, best known for playing Jesse Pinkman on "Breaking Bad" is less the goofball Jesse of the early seasons than the guilt-wracked, can't-have-a-good-time-anymore Pinkman of the last season. A scene where Hollis drinks a Coke at dinner instead of a beer and Paul, with a few facial twitches exhibits Hollis quietly waiting for his son to praise him for not boozing, is devastating. Ditto another scene, featuring Hollis, drunk off his ass in the middle of the night, red-eyed, inexplicably sawing wood on the front porch and listening to hard rock and nearly getting in a fight with the cops. You see someone possessed there, like he has a real demon inside of him; of course, he kind of does.
Toward the end of "Hellion," when seemingly, this metalhead milieu is finally broken beyond repair, and melodrama takes a firm hold of the plot, and the cops are looking for Jacob and his friends and talking about them as if they're shitty little criminals to be hunted down, Hollis, in a fit of rage and frustration and insight, blurts out this movie's exasperated, empathetic thesis: "They're fuckin' kids!"
“Hellion,” which is out on DVD/Blu-Ray on September 30, screens September 25 at 8 p.m. in the Soundstage in Stevenson University’s School of Design building. It is free to the public. A Q&A with the director will follow.