After the spectacularly bad hot-rod misfire “Need for Speed” suggested that Aaron Paul’s effort to transfer his “Breaking Bad” cachet to the big screen might crash and burn upon leaving the starting gate, this uneven but compelling independent feature by Kat Candler proves that he can act apart from Bryan Cranston. Nonetheless Paul still has to take a back seat to a newcomer named Josh Wiggins, who gives the title character of “Hellion” remarkable depth for one so young.
Wiggins plays Jacob Wilson, a thirteen-year old kid in Galveston traumatized by the loss of his mother and acting out in destructive behavior with his buddies. Paul is his father Hollis, who’s equally devastated by his wife’s death and unable to cope with the responsibilities of single parenthood, taking refuge in the bottle (and desultorily working to repair their storm-ravaged dream house in Galveston) while their current place clutters up with filled ash trays and empty beer bottles. Ultimately CPS intervenes to remove Jacob’s younger brother Wes (Deke Garner) from the home, placing him in the custody of Hollis’ sister-in-law Pam (Juliette Lewis), which only adds to Jacob’s sense of loss.
Jacob’s major interest, apart from making trouble, is motocross, aimed at taking his dirt-bike skills to a championship in a local race. The sport seems a perfect embodiment of the boy’s reckless attitude, which threatens to get him sent back to juvenile hall, where he’s already spent some time and another boy was recently killed, presumably in a skirmish with a rival inmate.
As the film progresses, Jacob’s life is set alongside those of his three buddies—burly Lance (Dalton Sutton), genial, cap-wearing Roger (Camron Owens) and squirrely Hyder (Dylan Cole)—who share his propensity for trouble and decide to collaborate on a dangerous scheme to reunite his family. The effort takes a tragic turn, stemming from a crisis in Lance’s family life, that threatens Jacob’s future but finally wakes Hollis up to his duties.
There’s something of an Afterschool Special feel to “Hellion”—these sorts of troubled-youth stories aren’t exactly thin on the ground, and the last-act dramatics involving the boys don’t ring entirely true. But the film nonetheless succeeds, partially on the straightforwardness of Candler’s direction, the natural performances she draws from Sutton, Owens, Cole and Garner, a nice turn by Lewis (here acting the responsible party for a change), a pulsating score by Curtis Heath and the evocative look cinematographer Brett Pawlak brings to the South Texas locations. Lesser parts are convincingly filled as well.
Still, none of that would matter if the performances by Paul and Wiggins didn’t provide an emotional anchor to the story. Paul is quite good, persuasively capturing the tired despondency of a man overwhelmed by the tragedy that’s struck him. But it’s Wiggins who gives the picture its real power, conveying the inarticulate rage of a teen against a world he obviously feels has given him few options without overdoing the angst; indeed, his quieter, more reflective moments are even more convincing than the flashier extrovert ones. On the evidence of this debut, Wiggins is a genuine find.
“Hellion” joins such recent films as “Mud” and “Joe” in the coming-of-age, troubled-teen genre that stretches back to “The 400 Blows” and beyond. While it doesn’t match the best of its predecessors, it has enough virtues to mark Wiggins and Candler as promising talents, and to give Paul a second wind in his effort to build a big-screen career after success on the tube.