Hellion: Review – Sundance 2014

Kids are fascinating. This seemed to be a theme at Sundance. Happy Christmas featured Joe Swanberg’s son Jude, Boyhood followed a child for 12 years and Hellion’s main characters are all under fifteen. It’s refreshing to see filmmakers finding the beauty in youth. After all, children are always less manipulated, effected and fake than adults.

I had seen director and writer Kat Candler’s short film this summer at the DGA Texas Filmmakers night. Hellion was all heavy metal, fire and brotherhood. It was such a distinct directorial voice and I couldn’t shake it. Months later when Sundance films were announced, I was ecstatic to see the short had been made into a feature. Kat Candler was one I couldn’t wait to chat with. She’s also from Texas and teaches at UT. Anyone who’s also from the Lone Star State is a friend of mine, and I a fan.

I rolled out of bed on my last day at Sundance to see Hellion early morning at the Yarrow Hotel. I figured getting there right on time would be cool-it was early, no sweat. But the theater was packed to the brim. It warmed my heart to see a crowd come out for such an exciting new filmmaker and promising film.  It also stars Aaron Paul, who attended in an unassuming jacket and beanie. You would never guess he had batted in the big leagues with a certain Mr. White.

Jacob Wilson (Josh Wiggins) drives the film, a 13-yr-old boy who loves motocross, heavy metal and setting stuff on fire. But Jacob proves more than just a punk kid. Beneath his seemingly indifferent attitude is an extreme anger. His main goal is to protect his younger brother Wes (Deke Garner). Their alcoholic dad Hollis (Aaron Paul) is trying and nearly failing to keep the boys in line after the loss of their mother. Paul, who’s a master at vulnerability, allows us into the sadness that has swallowed his family.

When Child Protective Services takes Wes to live with their aunt, played by an always-wonderful Juliette Lewis, Jacob begins to unravel. His fight to keep his family together throws him into situations no young boy should ever have to endure.

As much as the film’s subject matter is dark, the characters never totally fall over the edge. We watch each of them teeter, allowing the film to be incredibly compelling. How far will a brotherly bond take you and what’s it worth risking? How can you keep a son from the deep end when you’re sinking into it yourself? These questions propel the plot forward in a beautiful, heart-wrenching way. All the while in the world of adolescence, baseball bats, open fields and open wounds included.

It’s also undeniable that Josh Wiggins delivered one of the best performances at Sundance. He’s only fourteen.