South of Heaven, by Aaron Pinkston
The major dramatic moment in Kat Candler’s Hellion, which comes at the traditional climax of the film, could be the starting point of many other films. When 13-year-old Jacob and his gang of latchkey-kid friends break into his aunt’s house, the consequences could propel a plot heavy for 90 or so minutes. The thing is, until this point, Hellion isn’t too concerned with plot. The urgency in this scene is surprising, but it also shows how little happens in the previous hour. Without getting into specifics, the scene’s major instigator comes out of nowhere, the film not doing much to groom the supporting character for this moment. Because of this, it fails in being more affecting than merely surprising. For a film that starts so methodically paced, it suddenly feels rushed.
To go back to the beginning, Hellion stars newcomer Josh Wiggins as Jacob Wilson, who is introduced by smashing up a pickup truck and setting it on fire. We don’t know why Jacob and his buddies commit this crime, it’s even possible that they don’t really have a reason at all. This is a suitable introduction to an angry young man who has dealt with more than he should and doesn’t have a better outlet. Jacob isn’t committing crimes because he’s bored or necessarily even a bad kid. Teens just acting out is a familiar excuse and film trope, but Hellion gets the character decisively right.
In the moments of vulnerability, you can see Wiggins strip away the character’s shell. One particularly impressive moment, which directly follows the opening incident, puts him in a confrontation with a juvenile officer — without any dialogue, only his face, there is a mixture of disconnected toughness and just the right amount of fear. As the film goes on, these types of moments are where we find compassion for the young man, sparked through the performance. When Jacob ends up trying to do the right things is when it only gets worse, mostly through circumstance or the actions of others. This is where Hellion shows itself as more than a depressive film, but tragic.
The film’s other star, played by Aaron Paul, is Jacob’s grieving father. For Paul, this role is a continuation of his later run as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, when the character’s natural charisma is beaten out of him and replaced with incredible sadness. Unfortunately, Hollis doesn’t have the benefit of five seasons of growth, so he ends up a bit flatter, but is able to feel familiar. What’s worse, the character is built through a metaphor a touch too obvious — his drive to fix up the dream house purchased by him and his recently passed wife after it was destroyed by hurricane Katrina is an obsession strong enough to neglect his children. That said, Paul does fine work. This probably won’t be the performance that allows him to break away an eternal connection to Jesse Pinkman (was that what Need for Speed was for?), but this certainly proves that he can have a fine career. Perhaps not coincidentally, Paul was a co-executive producer on Hellion, so he seems to be pretty close to the work. Hopefully he won’t have to be so close to get different and diverse roles in future films.