Aimless rage, without a Hollywood ending
Hellion, an affecting coming-of-age story from indie writer-director Kat Candler (Jumping Off Bridges), opens with a speed-metal-music-soaked eruption of adolescent fury so raw, it's hard to bear.
A group of kids led by the film's antihero, 13-year-old Jacob, sets upon a pick-up truck, stomping on the hood, kicking the windshield, smashing up the headlights and front end with rare ferocity.
It's clear from the start we're not watching a display of teenage enthusiasm. These kids aren't expressing exuberance, but rage. Pure, directionless, aimless rage.
Composed of finely wrought vignettes but light on story and character development, Hellion is an impressionistic take on a life of not-so-quiet desperation led by a working-class family in a small Texas town near Galveston.
Jacob, played with unusual assurance by Josh Wiggins, is a highly intelligent, sensitive boy who has been at war with the world since his mother's death.
Things go from bad to worse when he's arrested for destroying the truck and sent to a specialized day-school/boot camp for juvenile delinquents.
His father, Hollis (Aaron Paul), is possessed of the same fury that consumes Jacob, an anger that comes from feeling totally powerless, impotent in the face of the world.
Hollis has lost his wife; his dream house is on the auction block in a foreclosure sale; he has no real career.
He is so deeply caught up in his own pain, he is absent from his children's lives, a ghost in his own home. This leaves Jacob to take care of his 10-year-old brother, Wes (Deke Garner).
That is, until Social Services decides Wes needs a more stable home and removes him to the care of his aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis).
This traumatic event serves as a catalyst for the rest of the story, which has Hollis and Jacob scrambling desperately to reunite their family.
Candler, a realist to the end, wisely steers clear of the usual fairy-tale cliches that litter teenage coming-of-age movies: Jacob doesn't save the day with some grand gesture.
He flounders, as do we all in real life.
Candler's real accomplishment is to use such an intimate portrait of a family's tragedy to shed light on a larger social reality: the malaise that affects so many middle- and working-class Americans in the post-industrial age.
Hellion *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Kat Candler. With Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, Josh Wiggins. Distributed by Sundance Selects.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult subjects, profanity, some violence, smoking).
Playing at: PFS at the Roxy.