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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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Josh Wiggins stars as Jacob in Kat Candler's "Hellion."
Josh Wiggins stars as Jacob in Kat Candler's "Hellion."

"Hellion" is bleak and full of teenage angst

In the opening moments of Kat Candler’s latest film "Hellion," a scrawny, troublesome teen named Jacob (newcomer Josh Wiggins) and his equally as troublesome friends smash the front windshield of a stranger’s pick-up truck in a parking lot with baseball bats. They put noticeable dents into every square inch, even going as far as torching it as a high school football game takes place just a short distance away.

With this moment of introduction, the film’s title suggests Jacob’s angst and fury as he’s seemingly on a hell bent mission, releasing his frustrations with every dent. One thing is for sure: Jacob and his friends are teens that you won’t want your kids hanging out with.

They only get away with the vandalism for a very short time, of course, until they’re caught in the act. They scurry in opposite directions like rodents, seeking safety from consequence, but they’re inevitably captured. At this point, we may be wise to assume that this isn’t the first time that he has gotten into trouble with the law. This time, however, he and his angst may have stepped over a very thin line that’ll be crossed over and over and over again throughout the film’s duration.  

As Jacob stands inside of a room of a building that’s near a juvenile detention center along with other boys around his age, an officer attempts to wipe off the carelessness on his face and install fear inside of him.

For now, he has a warm bed to sleep in inside of his home as he’s on some sort of probation. If he continues to slip downward, he’ll be forced to live out his adolescence under watch and in other’s control inside of the center, away from his drunken, depressed and sometimes absent father Hollis (Aaron Paul, "Breaking Bad") and his younger brother Wes (Deke Garner).

"Hellion," an extension of Candler’s 2012 short film of the same name, follows in familiar footsteps of working-class families that are struck with personal tragedy. In this case, Jacob and his family are left directionless after the unexpected death of the mother. We begin to understand Jacob’s hellion-ways and resentment to the world that took his mother and left him with his father, whom we later discover went on a three week, sorrow-filled binge, leaving Jacob to care for Wes by himself inside of their small, rural Texan home.

Perhaps Jacob has already been through more pain and anguish than most of us at the age of 13 have ever experienced. He deals with his pain by personifying the attitude of, well, a hellion, going out of control by destroying vehicles with his friends or being a bad influence by compelling Wes to torch construction materials in a yard. Either way, he never seems too content, with expressions that suggest that he’s always near his breaking point.

With Hollis trying to maintain a sense of control, Jacob’s actions soon attract the attention of child-protective services, who promptly take Wes out of Hollis’ custody after a house inspection and place him with his and Jacob’s aunt, Pam (Juliette Lewis). When Wes is taken out of the home, the small familial unit is fractured even further.

The screenplay, written by Candler, manages to concisely weave the confusion and heartache that’s obviously felt by watching the film, which itself is a flawed portrait of emotional fluctuations when faced with tribulation.

At times, Candler goes a bit overboard, failing to offer an immediate sense of victory or hope, whether small or large, for any of the characters. While Jacob is a teen who is clearly on a downward spiral, inevitably leading to a life as a juvenile delinquent, we’re hopeful for him, at least for a small part of the film. He registers to race in an amateur motor cross race, which is something that he really aspires to do. He continuously practices as his friends stand and record him as he drives by his lonesome. When it comes to the actual race, he ends up crashing his bike, which lands him in last place. Candler doesn’t bother giving him the victory, because life isn’t always that easy, and it sometimes leads to disappointment.

The film is often bleak in the same way that Candler handles her characters. It might be because of the atmospheric, thriller-esque cinematography from Brett Pawlak (who also shot "Short Term 12"), but the film is bolstered by mood. He remarkably captures the southern Texas landscape, where kids ride their bikes around the quiet suburbs and dirt tracks in the light of day, and then hang out in low-lit rooms and outside street lamps at night. This moodiness contrasts the grief and the confusion and wreckage experienced by the characters in the film.

This bleakness can be viewed as a flaw, as the characters are introduced to us as lost and out of their own control and comfort zone. Bad things continue to happen to them throughout the film, even when we’re starting to believe that light is actually at the end of the tunnel. It isn’t until the last moments of the film that there may be a sense of hope, but it isn’t without having to face consequences.

Despite its bleakness, Candler still manages to make the film engaging, whether it’s simply to know what bad thing can possibly happen to these characters next. Candler writes the teenage characters as realistic as possible, down to how they talk to each other with a stream of profanity, immaturity and a sense of defiance towards anyone. It’s how teenagers behave; they don’t use clean language, and they often act and speak before they think.

Another part of its success – perhaps the largest part – is because of the strong performances from Josh Wiggins and Aaron Paul. Under a scruffy beard and a trucker’s hat, Paul flawlessly exhibits aimlessness and anguishing sorrow. As a widower, he wants to throw his life away with a six-pack of beer in his lap, but also wants to keep Jacob and Wes in his life, as they’re the only two people keeping Hollis from slipping into a downward spiral of his own. In his post-"Breaking Bad" career, Paul needs to appear in more films like this rather than anything that closely resembles the atrocity of "Need For Speed."

The real stand out of the film, however, is Josh Wiggins. His performance as Jacob is Oscar-worthy (I know, I know. It’s a bit too early to throw out the word "Oscar" this early in the game, but I know talent when I see it). His raw performances recalls back to the early youthful performances of Leonardo DiCaprio.

Although Jacob’s continuously getting in trouble throughout the film, he’s perhaps a bit more different from his peers, maybe a bit wiser during the last moments of the film after having gone through so much. Unlike most teens his age, he eventually owns up to his actions, going as far as to surrender himself to the police following a reckless attempt to take Wes from Pam’s house in the middle of the night.

In a superbly shot final image of the film, in the midst of flashing red and blue lights, Jacob slowly raises his arms to surrender. This suggests that while we don’t exactly know what the future holds for any of the characters, we may at least know that for Jacob, there’s progress to be made. There’s a chance for hope. Maybe, just maybe, there’s light at the end of the tunnel after all.

"Hellion" is currently available on iTunes, VOD (check your cable provider) and Amazon. 

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