Jacob and Wes, the two child protagonists in Kat Candler’s uneven Hellion, are models of the drastic transition between childhood and adolescence. Jacob (Josh Wiggins) is only a few years older than Wes (Deke Garner), but the difference in their temperaments — one is impertinent and prone to acts of reckless violence, the other impressionable and adorable — makes you want to hold tight onto Wes before his inevitable evolution takes place.
Hormones, of course, can only partly account for the changes in Jacob. His hellish behavior is as nurtured as it is natural, in this case catalyzed by the death of his and Wes’s mother and the ensuing depression suffered by their father, Hollis (Aaron Paul), who reacted to the tragedy by departing on a weeks-long bender.
By the time we meet Hollis, he’s back with his kids, still carrying a six-pack wherever he goes, but sporting a demeanor that’s sullen rather than despairing; no longer spiraling into self-destruction, he has instead settled into a deep rut. In this sense, Hollis’s pain has a more subdued tone than Jesse Pinkman’s more agonizing moments in Breaking Bad, but Paul’s performance nevertheless confirms that there are few actors who make suffering feel so unjust as he does.
Jacob’s behavior is more explosive — early in Hellion, he and his friends smash and set fire to a pick-up truck parked outside a high-school football game — but it’s no less inured. The beat-in truck is just a preamble for a construction site set aflame later in the film. On a lazier afternoon, it’s a case of shaken-up pop cans that becomes the victim of Jacob’s baseball bat.
Caught in the fray is Wes, too young to rebel quite like Jacob but eager to follow him around wherever he goes. Jacob attempts to play the overprotective guardian, but he can’t help but get Wes involved in his exploits. A couple of run-ins with the police ultimately lead to the arrival of Child Protective Services, after which Wes is sent to live with his Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis).
There’s a sense in the first half of the film that the characters are all fighting against socially determined fates. When the motocross-obsessed Jacob signs up for a local race to secure the cash he thinks will help regain custody of Wes, the futility of the gesture is as important as the tender feeling behind it. Over the course of the film, Jacob and his friends repeatedly share stories about kids getting stabbed and beaten up in juvenile hall, which is pretty much the outcome to which most adults believe Jacob is already lost — the one from which Wes must be desperately protected.
At first such a destiny seems partly attributable to poverty. A comment by Jacob about getting invited to a “rich person’s party” and a foreclosure sign on what was meant to be Hollis, Wes, and Jacob’s dream home hints at a town divided by wealth. But the notion that Wes and Jacob are battling against inequality is a barely visible specter that ultimately is shooed away. The wider social world to which the three belong remains largely unexplored; we hardly get a sense of their community, of Hollis’s workplace, of the schools that Wes and Jacob attend.
Instead, Candler insistently tightens her focus on the hardships of growing up in a broken family, an approach that eventually feels over-determined. Several of Jacob’s equally rebellious friends, we discover, also have parents going through various stages of divorce or separation. By the time Hellion reaches its overheated climax, familial discord has ceased to be just one aspect of Wes and Jacob’s story and become the defining problem of the film’s worldview. Hollis’ parenting and his struggle to keep his family together have turned into one battle in a widened social crisis. Hellion‘s boundaries begin and end with blood. But its characters live in a world that’s much more complex. At first it seems like the film sets that complexity aside, but by the end, it seems more to be denying it.