The title character of “Hellion” is a 13-year-old southeast Texas boy named Jacob Wilson (Josh Wiggins), a motocross-loving vandal and troublemaker who can often be found wearing a sleeveless heavy metal T-shirt and running from security guards. But he gets some of his restless spirit from his father, Hollis (Aaron Paul), a former local baseball hero gone to seed, too fond of the drink. His wife died not long ago, leaving him to care for Jacob and 10-year-old Wes (Deke Garner) by himself. He loves his boys, but he’s not equipped for this.
This humane, well-acted drama is the third feature by writer-director Kat Candler, though only the first to get a substantial theatrical release (it’s also on Video on Demand) after premiering at Sundance. It is of a type that’s very familiar to the regular festival-goer: a low-key, naturalistic piece shot with hand-held cameras and a minimum of flair, about a fractured family struggling to regain its footing after a tragedy. It’s better than some, worse than others, but apart from a bit of improbable melodrama in the last act, it’s a solid and affecting film with a positive message.
The film begins with Jacob and his pals vandalizing a pickup truck in a parking lot during a high school football game, a bit of juvenile idiocy so ill-conceived (they’re bound to be caught, probably in the act) it almost makes you smile. Hollis, at his wits’ end, sends Jacob to a military-style day camp for incorrigible youths, insisting that if Jacob is determined to be a delinquent, he’d better not drag Wes down with him. Wes looks up to his big brother, of course, and wants to be included when Jacob and his “crew” sneak out at night to wreck property, look at porno mags, and talk ignorantly about girls.
Things come to a head when a Child Protective Services worker (Annalee Jefferies) finds the Wilson home — piled with clutter and beer cans, with Hollis always either out working or home drinking — unfit for a 10-year-old boy, and puts Wes temporarily in the custody of his late mother’s sister, Pam (Juliette Lewis). This aggravates the tension between Hollis and Jacob, each blaming the other for the family’s woes and both refusing to accept responsibility for their own actions.
That’s ultimately what the movie is about: father and son learning to grow up, be men, and take what’s comin’ to them. Candler’s sensitive screenplay and understated direction lead us on this course gently, getting points across without hitting us over the head with them. Jacob kicks and screams against authority, yet gradually finds maturity through his motocross experiences, finishing a race even after a fall ensures he’ll be in last place. Hollis bickers with Pam about custody and visitation issues, but only out of wounded pride. He knows she loves her nephews and is in a better position than he is at the moment to take care of Wes.
Aaron Paul, best known for TV’s “Breaking Bad,” puts his talent for teary-eyed, broken-voiced sincerity to good use here as the grieving, tormented father. (Candler gives him a poignant and wordless scene at the site of his wife’s fatal accident, and otherwise avoids dwelling on the details.) Meanwhile, young newcomer Josh Wiggins gives a heartfelt and convincing performance as the troubled Jacob. His false adolescent bravado, enhanced by a voice that sounds older than Jacob looks, is effective: like his dad, you want to wring the little bastard’s neck. But then, finally, we see him in moments of vulnerability and appreciate what the character has been through and what a performance the actor has given.
The plot takes a movie-of-the-week turn late in the game, a letdown after being so consistently authentic up to that point. But it isn’t enough to derail an otherwise sure-handed B-grade drama buoyed by convincing performances.
B (1 hr., 34 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.