Aaron Paul can handle a conflicted character. His hair-trigger emotional shifts transformed a shifty, sleazy little drug dealer into an essential player in Breaking Bad. That Emmy Award-winning talent works to bring devastating honesty to Hellion, where Paul portrays Hollis Wilson, an oil refinery worker in southeast Texas who, for all practical purposes, abandons his children in favor of drinking himself into numb oblivion while mourning his dead wife.
Hollis' nearly feral sons, 13-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins) and 10-year-old Wes (Deke Garner) fend for themselves. Since interaction with their dad is intermittent and often confrontational, they scrounge around their sad little town with a gang of similarly neglected kids while living in a beer-can-strewn mess of a house (their seldom-seen dad spends time and what little money he has trying to renovate his late wife's dream home in Galveston, seemingly unaware that it's in foreclosure).
The boys' diet includes childish delicacies such as white bread with whipped cream and sugar, which fuel frenetic playtime activities that advance from casual vandalism to the go-to-juvenile-detention kind of troublemaking.
The only positives in Jacob's life are his passion for dirt bike racing, which affords him a measure of discipline, and his practical, sympathetic aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis) who, working against all odds, tries to maintain a sense of family the boys had when their mother was around.
When Jacob's criminal antics force Child Protective Services to conclude that Wes will be better off with his aunt than under Hollis' roof, both he and Jacob react with predictable outrage. And Pam doesn't do herself any favors by setting herself above and apart from them, setting up what can only be a disastrous outcome.
The film, which recalls 2012's made-in-Arkansas Mud (directed by Jeff Nichols, who is among the executive producers of Hellion), shows its greatest strength in its astonishingly realistic performances. Like young Jacob Lofland, who plays Neckbone in Mud, Wiggins is quietly captivating as a kid struggling to understand the parameters of his limited world while trying to fit in with the delinquents he calls friends and looking out for his little brother, who seems resigned to accepting everything going on around him. Their interactions cause the film's tension to intensify without a false moment.
Then comes the film's surprising ending, which, while spectacular, feels clumsy and out of step with the competent pace set throughout by director Kat Candler. Still, in an era when family dramas continue to take dark turns and reject happy endings, Hellion makes a strong statement.
MovieStyle on 07/11/2014
Print Headline: Hellion