Although much of Hellion, set in southeast Texas, feels off-the-shelf and familiar, debut writer/director Kat Candler isn’t one to provide easy salvation for her characters. The situation here is very much post-recession, with a family struggling against forces large and small. Recently widowed Hollis (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) insists on repairing the family’s storm-ruined beach house home near Galveston, even though it’s obviously doomed to foreclosure. Meanwhile back home, his two sons are unsupervised and running wild: 10-year-old Wes and, particularly, the budding 13-year-old delinquent Jacob (Josh Wiggins), who’s fond of setting fires, skipping school, talking back, and riding motorcycles. Trying to intervene, but gently, is Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis, once the hellion herself, refreshingly cast against type).
How did the mom die? That’s one of those annoying, looming secrets that Candler leaves to the end to answer (and it turns out not to matter very much). Her treatment of the Wilson family is more a sociological case study than a nuanced portrait. Everyone’s a predictable type, and the story similarly hews to template. Naturally Jacob is acting out, owing to grief and an absent father. And of course Child Protective Services comes calling. Aunt Pam swoops down for the younger boy, and a remorseful Hollis weeps manly tears in private. And, midway through the movie, one of Jacob’s pack members produces a stolen handgun—which we know must be fatefully fired in the third act.
Candler’s Hellion has the misfortune of following two much better stories about at-risk boys in the South: the recent Joe and last year’s My Name Is Mud (whose director, Jeff Nichols, helped produce Hellion). If it lacks their artfulness, this movie does get the blighted textures exactly right. The Wilsons are a family slipping ineluctably out of the middle class, with empty kitchen shelves, broken-down cars, and overtaxed parents (if they’re home at all). That decline drives Hollis to despair (and the bottle), while Jacob seems only to be gathering rage. Here’s a post-millennial kid bound for the Army, jail, or worse. There are no resources for him and his family, of course, because this is low-tax, low-service Texas, where there are plenty of good jobs in the prison industry.
In one memorable scene, Jacob and his pals smash shaken-up soda bottles with a baseball bat, surprised by the strength of their anger. They’ve got the green diamond to themselves—have no teams been organized? Are there no dads left to coach?—with a giant gas plant hissing indifferently in the background. Their urge to destroy echoes the socioeconomic wreckage around them. These kids are your future, Candler is saying, and don’t be surprised when they come creeping into your house at night with a gun.
Runs Fri., July 4–Thurs., July 10 at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated. 109 minutes.