Hellion finds Kat Candler—a prolific director of short films whose work has been a staple of festival programs for the past few years—expanding one of her most-traveled works to feature length. Set in Port Arthur, Texas, the movie focuses on Jacob (Josh Wiggins), a teenage delinquent who lives in a slump of a bungalow with his younger brother, Wes (Deke Garner) and alcoholic widower dad, Hollis (Aaron Paul). Left on his own, Jacob does what bored small-town movie teens do, breaking into construction sites and vandalizing cars, often with little Wes in tow. Soon, Child Protective Services shows up to whisk Wes away into the care of his aunt, Pam (Juliette Lewis), leading Jacob further into delinquency and Hollis further into drink.
At this point, the movie falls into an all too familiar indie torpor. The central psychology—Jacob misbehaves because he is frustrated with Hollis and by his mother’s death, and Hollis drinks for the same reasons—is aggressively non-complicated. Occasionally, the cast manages to breathe life into their characters; Lewis is effectively cast against type, and Paul does fine work within his established range.
As the last 25 years of American independent cinema have proven, few things are easier to portray convincingly than disaffected, inarticulate teens; all a filmmaker has to do is combine relatable nostalgia for the teen culture of yesteryear (represented here by a near-absence of technology and a soundtrack heavy on Metallica and Slayer) with the natural reticence of the teen actors. Film teen boys talking awkwardly among themselves, or doing nothing, and you’re guaranteed to get something that feels authentic, if not especially gutsy. A little lens flare goes a long way when it comes to moody evocations of aimless small-town teenhood.
To Candler’s credit, Hellion does make occasional inroads into emotional intimacy, with a handful of meal-time scenes that make its central broken family seem like a real home, and not a collection of screenwriting-lab signifiers. (Hollis’ frequently referenced past as a promising baseball player is a real groaner.) But it falls back too often on the worst clichés of its sub-genre, the wispy, reverie-like, regional coming-of-age movie. There’s a palpable sense of place and temperature in the movie’s rough anamorphic camerawork (by Brett Pawlak, who shot Short Term 12), but, as is often the case, it serves as little more than visual tinsel. However effective they may be in suggesting a sense of place, shots of dirt-bike-tracked slopes and stretches of suburban flatland don’t make a good movie. Occasionally, the viewer gets the sense that the camera’s jittery swaying is meant to draw attention from the film’s clunkiness. Fragrance is a poor substitute for depth.