“Hellion” is a well-acted, painful exploration of grief

Alex Williams

With buzz for the film steadily building out of its Sundance and SXSW screenings, “Hellion” is one of the most heavily hyped indie releases of the summer. Not only is it Aaron Paul’s most substantial role since the conclusion of “Breaking Bad,” but it’s also a great showcase for the talents of UT professor and writer/director Kat Candler, who establishes herself here as a promising voice in indie cinema. A downbeat but beautifully acted exploration of grief and deeply felt defeats, “Hellion” marks an impressive third feature for Candler.

Newcomer Josh Wiggins stars as Jacob Wilson, the titular troublemaker whose antics in the aftermath of his mother’s death cause Child Protective Services to take a closer look at his family. His father, Hollis (Aaron Paul), is falling apart, blinded by grief as he fumbles through life, and his younger brother, Wes (Deke Garner), is taken away and put in the custody of their aunt, Pam (Juliette Lewis).

“Hellion” was filmed in the port cities of Texas, and Candler wrings plentiful atmosphere out of her setting, creating a world brimming with rage and grief, setting the mood with energetic heavy metal music. The film’s most energetic scenes show Jacob and Wes wreaking havoc to shrieking guitars, but Candler is just as effective in the quieter moments. Her storytelling is remarkably efficient, especially in the opening stretches of the film, which forgo excessive dialogue and allow the measured but emphatic performances to tell the audience what’s important to the characters and what the stakes of the story will be.

Of the many great performances in “Hellion,” the best is also the riskiest. Candler had to gamble on Josh Wiggins, who had never acted before, but Wiggins’ pained portrayal of a boy reeling as his family collapses is heartwrenching. Wiggins sells every moment of confused rage and regret, and plays beautifully off of Deke Garner, who plays his younger brother. Garner was in the short film that Candler expanded into “Hellion,” and proves to be a skilled, understated young actor. His performance is surprisingly complex, as Wes thrives on having maternal attention again but remains guilty about leaving his brother and father behind.

Among the adult performances, Aaron Paul continues his streak of playing the tortured character he made his name with on “Breaking Bad.” It’s a smart bit of casting, asking what happens when the train wreck character Paul specializes in is responsible for human lives, and despite an occasionally spotty accent, his performance is painfully raw.

Juliette Lewis is just as good but plays the film’s most problematic character. Rather than defining the plot, Pam is defined by its needs, and she’s often cruelly antagonistic because the film needs some conflict. Candler does a good job making Pam’s irrational villainy feel like the pettiness that often pops up in tumultuous family conflicts, but Lewis’ performance is much better suited to the moments of tenderness between Wes and Pam than to the ugly side she shows when dealing with the other characters.

If there’s a major complaint to be filed against “Hellion,” it’s in the film’s finale, which dramatically raises the tension and stakes only to end on a fairly inconclusive note. While the main character’s future is reasonably easy to assume, the issue of Wes’ custody is left frustratingly unresolved. The ending is also relentlessly bleak, offering the slightest of silver linings, and after the painful 90 minutes that preceded it, a hint of redemption or happiness for the characters would have been appreciated.

It’s a testament to the power of the story and characters Candler has created that any issues with “Hellion” arise from the conflict she injects into the film. The characters are so well drawn and the actors portraying them are so perfectly tuned that it’s genuinely painful to watch them put through Candler’s emotional wringer. “Hellion” is a savvy bit of summer counter-programming, an impressive declaration of voice that brings an honest perspective to a painful story that easily lives up to the hype.

Candler will be present for Q&A at the 5:10 p.m., 7:00 p.m. and 9:20 p.m. Saturday and Sunday showings of "Hellion" at the Violet Crown.

Director: Kat Candler
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 99 minutes