Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language
Directed by: Kat Candler
Written by: Kat Candler
Starring: Josh Wiggins, Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis & Deke Garner
Coming of age films are a dime-a-dozen lately, but they seldom get as upsetting and frustrating as HELLION. I say this in the best way possible, because that’s exactly the kind of story HELLION is. It follows a troubled youth and asks questions that have no easy answers. We see both sides of the coin and are left to our own devices to answer what we might do in any position in the film. It’s a compelling piece of independent cinema that’s a hugely promising sophomore effort for Kat Chandler.
Jacob is a thirteen-year-old who loves heavy metal and Motocross racing. Unfortunately, he’s not in the most ideal of environments. His mother is gone, Hollis (his father) might as well be gone, and he’s pretty much left on his own to take care of his younger brother Wes. After social services comes knocking and takes Wes away to his aunt’s home. Jacob and Hollis must get their act together to get Wes back. Hollis is trying to sober up and prove to the courts that he’s a capable parental figure for his child. Jacob is trying to do whatever he can to bring Wes home and becomes obsessed with winning a Motocross race for him. As life goes, it’s possible that not everything will go as planned or that everything will eventually be okay.
HELLION is a blend of the coming-of-age formula and harsh family drama. There isn’t so much a concrete plotline as it is a group of a characters in a tough patch of life. All four of the protagonists are fleshed out and given enough detail for the viewer to feel a bit of sympathy for each of them. This is part of the reason why the moral issues brought up in HELLION are so difficult to find a simple answer on. Visiting message boards after watching this movie, I saw posts that argued the film from three distinct angles. It should also be noted that the writing has a stark realism around it too. The delinquent teenage boys are troubled kids who swear so much you’d think they were raised on Quentin Tarantino films and are prone to violence when agitated. None of these characterizations would matter if the performances weren’t up to snuff. Aaron Paul is great as the emotionally troubled father with a lot of baggage. In this role, he’s given territory he really hasn’t gone into before. Juliette Lewis is not nearly on the screen as much as the rest of the cast, but comes off as a compelling character in her own tough situation. The real stars are the child actors, especially newcomer Josh Wiggins, who are amazing in their roles.
In the final 30 minutes, HELLION goes in directions that I didn’t see coming and was made all the better for it. Glancing back at some of these scenes though, they feel a tad rushed. Some real potential might have been milked more from a key situation, but is over almost as soon as it began. The film also takes a while to gets its footing in the first third. Shaky camera work can be a little much as well. Even with these questionable stylistic and pacing choices aside, HELLION is a great and emotionally gripping piece of work. One of the elements that is briefly glimpsed, but had the biggest impact on me is the emotional distance Wes towards Jacob. As a guy with three brothers of his own, this plot point (also rushed through fairly quickly) devastated me.
HELLION achieves its goal of getting the viewer frustrated, emotionally engaged, and throwing questions at them that have no easy answers. It’s a movie that’s bound to spark some interesting conversations and debates between friends watching it together. I’m a little surprised there isn’t a tad bit of controversy around where the film goes, but I mean this in an absolutely positive way. The acting is stellar and the story is interesting. There are a couple of pacing decisions that weigh it down ever so slightly. The shaky cam can also be annoying, but it doesn’t have a huge presence either. HELLION has me excited to see what Kat Candler does next. Highly recommended!