The adage of "boys will be boys" only stretches so far until it breaks. And then there’s Hellion, which takes the saying out back and beats it with rusty fence posts until it’s whimpering in the Texas mud.
Yeesh, these boys. The movie opens and they’re relentlessly smashing a pickup truck with hammers and pipes in the parking lot of a high school football game. One kid climbs on the hood to pulverize the windshield. Another kid lights a fire in the front seat. They’re like piranha devouring a Christmas ham.
We've seen teens do worse things in movies. Remember Kids, or when Anne Hathaway rolled dice to see how many gang bangers she had to sleep with in Havok. A generation of daughters won't be let out of their bedrooms by their overprotective fathers because of that scene. But the Hellion kids are 13 years old, with baby fat still on their cheeks and action figures still on their dressers, and there they go lighting fires, starting fights and pulling revolvers during home invasions. Something tells me a long grounding isn't going to correct this behavior.
Hellion follows Jacob (Josh Wiggins) as he pals around with his little crew of metalheads as they break the law, ride dirtbikes and generally terrorize their neighborhood in sudden violent outbursts. Jacob lets his kid brother, the tiny tyke Wes, hang around with him and his buddies, even as their caustic influence starts to seep into Wes’ little noggin. In an early sequence, Jacob won't let Wes look at a porn magazine, but in the next scene Wes is being forced to commit arson as a form of gang initiation — priorities are all over the place.
Jacob is screwed up mostly because his dad, Hollis (Aaron Paul), is a deadbeat drunk, whose only expression of emotion comes when he drops flowers by the intersection where his wife was killed in a car accident. Hollis hardly registers when cops bring Jacob home in handcuffs, or when a social worker takes Wes out of the home to live with his aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis). Eventually, though, Hollis does start giving a damn, but it may be too late for his children, who are pushing away from him faster in their downward spirals.
The writing, persuasively realistic in tone and mediocrity, is uneven and frustrating because the film lurks forward without any serious motivation. At times Hellion feels like a slice-of-life documentary, which gives it an authentic feel but little narrative arc. I could have used a few less shots of the boys just sitting around, or wandering the streets on their bikes. And Hollis apparently doesn't have a job, which means he can sit around and hammer stuff all day with no progress to show for it.
The children are convincing (and also terrifyingly cold) and so is Paul, who doesn't show as much range as he did on Breaking Bad, though he does have a heartbreaking scene in a pizza joint that will crush your soul. It is interesting how the film ponders Lewis's Pam: she's the only character with her act together, yet the film frames her like a villain, the child-stealing homewrecker. And I adore Lewis. Somewhere, perhaps in different interplanetary dimension, Juliette Lewis is a beloved national treasure.
Hellion tries overly hard to convince us it has some kind of metal cred. The tweens wear genre-clashing T-shirts of Skeletonwitch, Slayer and Pig Destroyer and have circle pits in their living rooms to vintage Metallica songs — and the film features a Transformers-level of product placement for the band The Sword — but the effect seems to be an exact response to Spender Susser's equally headbanging delinquent-teen drama Hesher. I initially disliked Hesher when it came out, but the film's subversive, nihilist streak has won me over after several viewings. It worked because the metal soundtrack was great, but also because the film had an emotional payoff. Hellion can't say the same with its more realistic, but abysmally more depressing, final moments.
In the end, Hellion just dishes out too much turmoil, so much that it starts to shove you away. That’s not to say the acting or the directing, by newcomer Kat Candler, aren't stellar, because they are. It’s just the film is too loud, too scattered and a little too gritty.