I made up my mind on Twitter that this would be the final film I’d be seeing at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. The festival was a blast, and I don’t regret a thing, but boy am I tired. The long lines, the struggle to find good seating, etc. It was a bit stressful (not really), but it was all worth it. And I think I ended the festival on a really stellar note. I’d been hearing about Hellion for quite some time now, as the film’s writer-director Kat Chandler lives here in this great city of Austin, Texas, and of the film’s cast and it’s micro-budget. Somebody told me that the film cost a little under a million dollars, and it features actors like Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis in the film. And it was also shot around the Gulf in South Texas, and I have some family down there so that was neat. I’ve heard great things about the film, and I had wanted to see the film when it premiered at Sundance, but I was able to see the film with all of Austin in the audience (it was a packed house for such a tiny theater), and now, I give you my review of Kat Chandler’s Hellion.
Hellion tells the story of Jacob, a 13-year-old punk kid growing up in South Texas. Jacob is a trouble maker, as the on of the first scenes in the film involves Jacob and his friends setting fire to a pickup during a high school football game. After Jacob is sent to a lesser part of Juvenile detention, he returns home to his life which isn’t a whole lot. He and his little brother Wes live with their father, Hollis, played by Aaron Paul. Hollis has become a drunk who doesn’t beat his children, but is tormented by the death of their mother from several years ago. That torment is also a burden on the young children. So much so that CPS comes in one day and takes Wes away to stay with his Aunt Pam, played by Lewis. And now Jacob and Hollis try to live with the fact that Wes is not with them and they fight back to get him back.
As you can tell, the film isn’t as fun or as wacky as the previous films I’ve reviewed from the festival this year. The film is a hard-core drama, with some shades of comedy here and there from locals in the film and Jacob’s friends, who rival the vulgarity of the children from Stand by Me. But the film is primarily a character piece, and it’s a characters movie, or that’s how I saw the film. The acting, from the kids to the adults is terrific. I was wondering how Aaron Paul would transition from television to movies (he has several big film projects in the works in the next few months/years), and Paul begins his post-Breaking Bad career off to a running start in this role. Aaron Paul is incredible in his performance as Hollis, and I was mesmerized watching his performance on-screen whenever he was on. You know that he’s a screw-up whose lost damn near everything, and you can see in his eyes that he wants to be the best parent he can be, and he tries to clean up his life. Juliette Lewis is also very good in the picture, and I admire Kat Chandler for not going to the regular film-convention of portraying this character as an antagonist who has taken away a father’s child from him. In fact, the film has not real antagonist, and they don’t portray Lewis as this evil bitch, she’s just a human being whose trying to make things right as well, and it’s fascinating to watch these characters and how they play out their cards on how to resolve this situation.
And of course, I need to get to the role of Jacob in the film, which was fantastic for an unknown actor. The kid’s name is Josh Wiggins, and this is his first piece of acting ever on-screen (according to IMDB). This kid is incredible, and his debut performance rivals the performance by Tye Sheridan in last years Mud (interestingly Jeff Nichols, the director of Mud, executive produced Hellion). Wiggins looks the part of his role, and his South Texas accent is really spot on (I’ve seen him in interviews and he has a bit of an accent, but nothing to this degree). And also, the environment that Chandler shot her film in was terrific. Like I said I grew up going to South Texas as a kid, I still go down there a lot due to having a lot of family down there, and it was nice to see that side of Texas portrayed on film, which hasn’t really seen the big screen that much in recent memory. And in some ways, this story kind of hits home for me, and so I had a bit of a connection with these children and the adults in this story. I won’t go into details (I run a movie review site, not a gossip column), but that portrayal of South Texas coastal life is really spot on.
If I had some complaints with the film, it would be that some aspects of the finale I felt were not too great, and that I wished that some of the dirt bike sequences in the film were shot a little more in real-time, instead of from the view of the spectators. But then again the film had a micro-budget, and now I feel like a snob for saying so. Sorry Ms. Chandler. But other than those minor nit-picks, Hellion is a southern dramatic masterpiece in some respects. The more and more that I think about the film, my love for the film starts to really elevate. The film is beautifully shot, wonderfully acted and scripted, and everything in-between. The film is not perfect, but Kat Chandler has made a really special film in Hellion, and one that I hope is not overlooked toward the end of the year like so many of these tiny little gems are. Whenever the film is released, and I hope it is soon, I highly encourage you to check out Hellion, and it will be worth your time and money to do so. That about wraps up SXSW for me this year, I’ll give you a run down of the best films of the festival in the not-so distant future. Stick around.