A simulacrum of current regionalist indie cinema, full of on-trend tropes (evocative Southern small-town setting, bruised relationship between father and teenage son), Hellion shares a tough yet melancholy soul with recent success stories like Mud and Joe, even The Tree of Life. But soul alone does not make a film, and Hellion is a wispy and timid piece despite its loud bark.
The title refers to Jacob Wilson (Josh Wiggins), a teenager who thrives on badness for the sake of badness—namely motocross, heavy metal, and petty-ish acts of destruction. He’s posited as a liminal figure in every possible way: tentatively entering adulthood, with a cracked voice but a child’s body; both with and without a family, as his mother is dead and his father, Hollis (Aaron Paul), is too drunk to register, though Jacob cares for his younger brother as tenderly as any hellion could; and toeing the line of a bona fide criminal record, with law enforcers repeatedly threatening him with juvie when they aren’t coddling or dismissing him. But Jacob’s volatile energy and selfhood-in-progress is at odds with the tepid narrative that writer-director Kat Candler has created for him, which shuffles various stalemates—between Jacob and Hollis, Jacob and his friends, Jacob and his well-intentioned but bewildered aunt, Pam (Juliette Lewis)—without advancing or complicating them beyond the rote script of “this boy is trouble.”
The narrative’s lack of energy does curiously suit Hellion’s atmospheric location of Port Arthur, Texas, a sleepy coastal town presented here as less a spot on a map than a desolate fugue state, where every resident dreams of relocating elsewhere (Hollis obsesses over rebuilding a hurricane-ravaged beach house in nearby Galveston; Pam mentions aspirations toward Houston), but is too exhausted to do much about it. The filmmakers find an off-hand poetry in the junkyards and vacant parks in which Jacob and his cub pack of fellow motoheads spend their free time, and the jolting heavy-metal soundtrack gives the teen-oriented scenes electricity while contextualizing Jacob’s obsessions. In a place as still and silent as this, who wouldn’t gravitate toward hard rock and speedy thrills? But what makes Jacob truly empathetic is the formidable performance by Wiggins, who finds not just rage, but conflicted priorities and multiple identities within the character—pride at odds with fear, a brother’s love pitted against macho aggression.
Hellion is considerably more legible and potent when focused exclusively on Jacob and his darkening psyche; Candler’s grasp on her adult characters is shakier, and though Paul and Lewis both give committed performances, their characters grow less and less specific as the film progresses. Handicapped by ungainly dialogue (such as “I never should’ve left you boys” and “These are the precious moments”) and plot turns that are simultaneously over-telegraphed and improbably placed, Hollis and Pam begin the film as two moderately intriguing sketches of stray, damaged types, and never sharpen into specific personalities. They passively and vaguely exist on the screen, never humming with life.
Hellion’s ending, which gracefully cedes the film from Hollis and Pam to Jacob in a boldly emotional sequence aboard a lake ferry, indicates that Candler understands her film’s strengths and weaknesses. Hellion finds redemption through Jacob at the exact moment that Jacob finds redemption through familial duty: Both film and protagonist are troubled works in progress that shuffle and meander and frequently falter, but occasionally sing.