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Hellion | Review

Boys of Summer: Candler’s Latest Effort a Meandering Glance at Troubled Youth

Kat Candler Hellion PosterIf there’s anything as frequently explored as the ‘coming of age’ archetype in independent American cinema, it has to be the tried and true dilemma of troubled youths amidst familial trauma or dysfunction. Ere goes, the multitudinous examples sometimes obscure each other, and such is the case with Kat Candler’s first feature since 2006, Hellion, which is an agitatingly stretched out version of an earlier short film from the director. Audiences will most likely compare the film to 2012’s Mud, and oddly enough, director Jeff Nichols shows up as producer here. While there’s nothing innately wrong with Candler’s careful exploration of a troubled youth discovering the necessity and wisdom of doing the right thing, despite a pair of laudable performances, the essence of the film feels stagnantly predestined.

Frequently getting in trouble with the law since his mother passed away and his mostly absent father (Aaron Paul) is barely coping with the loss himself, 13 year old Jacob (Josh Wiggins) has just been forced to enter a probationary program. Any more incidents and he will be sent to a juvenile detention facility. A dirt biking aficionado, Jacob spends his time readying for an upcoming competition or raising hell with his group of buddies. Left to care for his 10 year old kid brother, Wes (Deke Garner), Jacob’s actions alert Social Services to their current living situation, which causes Wes to be removed from their home and placed with nearby Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis). While this causes immediate soreness between Pam and her sister’s husband, it’s her plans to move to Galveston and take Wes with her that finally cause angry tensions to break the surface.

Despite hitting all the customary notes of a hurting family spiraling quickly into a predictable jam, Hellion does topple into an intense, arresting episode of violence that is terribly upsetting, yet manages to jolt the film out of its slipping down torpor. While the scenario is preceded by Candler’s multiple scenes examining the dynamics within Jacob’s group of friends, it feels like the only real unpredictable onscreen moment.

Aaron Paul’s grieving, alcoholic father, is an understated performance, his pained interactions with the children he loves but clearly hasn’t been able to deal with, are realistic and sometimes moving. Lewis plays less of a fully realized character. She’s an actress who generally elevates the material she’s in, and here she draws attention to a sympathetic character that’s inexplicably caught in an undesirable situation.

But, much like Tye Sheridan in Nichols’ Mud, the real presence in the film is newcomer Josh Wiggins as the angry and dismayed Jacob, the eponymous hellion. Clashes of heavy metal music accompany his dirt biking sequences, as if to convey the power and control he’s allowed to feel when engaging in activities that allow him to escape his existence. Candler does an excellent job of portraying a group of young, adolescent boys, sticking together through boredom, their lack of motivation devolving into petty criminal activities to kill some time.

The setting, the feeling, and the chemistry are all there for a potent drama, yet something about Hellion feels wholly superficial, as if we’re not really delving into the material. Perhaps this is because we’re so familiar with these stories about kids acting out after the death or absence of a parent, the family like a broken bone unable to heal in the correct fashion. Whatever the case, Candler’s obviously keen on exploring what happens after the death of the maternal figure (something her 2006 film, Jumping Off Bridges also centers on), so perhaps her keen observational skills would be better served in another scenario.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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