Sundance Film Festival: Aaron Paul tangles with troubled son in “Hellion”

Hellion

Aaron Paul is really growing as an actor. Having played an emotionally anguished young man in “Breaking Bad” and an emotionally anguished young husband in “Smashed,” he now plays an emotionally anguished father in “Hellion.”

I kid, but Paul is actually very good as a blue-collar widower, Hollis Wilson, trying to raise his two young sons in Kat Candler’s familiar but well-acted drama. His blue eyes haunted behind a forest of beard, Paul effectively conveys the confusion and pain of a guy who thought he’d spend his life working all day and drinking beer in front of the TV all night, instead finding himself forced to clean up his act, get past his grief and be a single parent.

But “Hellion” really belongs to young Josh Wiggins, who plays Hollis’ 13-year-old son Jacob. A delinquent who is one more arrest away from juvie, Jacob hides his grief at his mother’s death (and, more subtly, his father’s emotional absence) behind a storm of heavy metal music and the whine of his dirt bike. Jacob often acts as kind of a second father to his sweet-natured younger brother, Wes, although he’s imperfect, as in a rare amusing scene where he makes whipped cream-and-sugar sandwiches for lunch.

The family’s troubles have caught the attention of both social workers and Hollis’ sister-in-law (Juliette Lewis), who gradually starts making moves to take custody of Wes herself. Lewis is good – she could be the villain of the piece, but she effectively projects good intentions, even as she is fulfilling a motherhood need in her own heart with Wes. Her actions force Jacob and Hollis both (each equally deserving of the title “Hellion”) to clean themselves up and start taking responsibility for their actions.

“Hellion” is a little slow-moving at times, moving like those dirt bikes in the same tight circles of despair, rage and tentative hope. But the performances are good, and Chandler definitely captures the feel of life in south Texas. A half-finished beach house in Galveston serves as a promise of a good life that never quite comes.

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