A film can be as long as it needs to be, so long as it accomplishes everything it sets out to do. Whether it’s sending a message or completing a turn of events, or just entertaining its audience, it ought to do it either efficiently or effectively—one can forgive a lack of the other. Kat Candler’s Hellion, unfortunately, does none of this.True, it weighs in at just 94 minutes, much like the Italian Neorealist films to which it also aspires thematically, but that’s hardly what I mean by “efficient.” Films like Umberto D. and Ladri di biciclette revolve around the Everyman to give us a pervasive look at society that also empathizes with the individual. Hellion, based on Kandler’s short film of the same name, tries to inherit this tradition, but it easily loses focus of its characters, which results in its unresolvedly ambiguous narrative.
As a character over plot-based drama, Hellion’s essential and primary objective is illustrating personalities and their lives. Jacob (Josh Wiggins) is the center of the story, a frustrated delinquent on juvenile probation who shows no signs of redeeming himself or his dysfunctional family in the face of the law. He enjoys blasting heavy metal, riding motorbikes and motocross, and trashing cars and setting off fires with his gang of friends (Dalton Sutton, Camron Owens and Dylan Cole). His alcoholic father Hollis (Aaron Paul) is too focused on fixing his deceased wife Rebecca’s house in another town miles away—an obvious state of mourning—to establish any mutual connection with him beyond their palpably Oedipal relationship. His younger brother Wes (Deke Garner), when he’s not reading The Swiss Family Robinson, looks up to Jacob and follows him around. He starts a fire to gain Jacob’s respect, only to be taken by Child Protective Services and put in the care of their aunt and Hollis’s sister-in-law, Pam (Juliette Lewis), whose paternal efforts and abilities are limited by all the guarded attitudes of the male- dominated cast.
Jacob and Hollis’s lack of any real solution to the dilemma of losing custody of Wes makes it seem more like an allegory to their life as a whole rather than the crux of an actual plot and chance for change. Hollis plans to fix the house and Jacob plans to win a motocross derby prize, all with some vague hope of winning custody of Wes yet also just as unlikely to come to fruition at all. In short, the two bear witness to the slow dissolution of their family, realizing at a snail-like pace that they are incapable of amending their situation. Jacob and Hollis’s false and waning notions of confidence adds to the weight of the narrative’s sluggish progression, making it even more detrimental as it smothers all sense of urgency up to the very end and puts Hellion between a nihilistic downfall story and a collection of vignettes.
The best scenes in this mélange of slow tragedy are those of Jacob with his gang as they talk about motorbikes and family problems, watch Jacob practice for the upcoming derby, flirt with girls, get into scuffles, and cause all sorts of destruction. Not only do the four young actors share an impressive chemistry with on another throughout, but here Candler’s decision to shoot everything handheld reaches its full effect, connoting not just the frustration of individuals but of a more societal and atmospheric collective of youth.
It’s mostly the scenes that focus on Aaron Paul’s character where the entire narrative, including its very clarity, goes south. It’s enough of a challenge for Paul to be challenging the late-twenties, post-teen stereotype he’s garnered from creating Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad to his most recent work, an Xbox commercial. His Hollis as a father seems to be just as compulsive, internalized and lacking in direction in his underwhelming conversations with Jacob. What’s worse is his character on page is also just as premature, or at least underdeveloped. We know he’s had some past affiliation with local league baseball, and that he has some level of construction skills, but otherwise we don’t even know what he does for a living, or if he’s even employed or on some pension. When he comes in late for a court-ordered counseling session, he hardly has any explanation for why he was late, and we feel just as incapable of filling in the blank: Was he drunk? Over at his half-built house, maybe?
Just like the characters in the film, Candler does a lot with the wrong motivations, resulting in a film that grows as hopelessly as the situations it depicts. Though it means to show raw emotion that is just as effective and powerful as the social institutions and socio-economic backgrounds surrounding them, Candler’s ultimately missing substance. What Hellion lacks is the essential building blocks for telling the kind of story that it wants to tell.