Film looks at the ripple effects of pain on kids too young to process it.
Named for a motherless teen whose seething rage threatens to turn lethal, the new indie film “Hellion” hardly lacks for topicality. When his dad’s drunken buddies give the kid a .45 caliber pistol to wave around, it’s impossible not to think of the latest rash of school shootings.
Still, unlike other mean-teen dramas of the past decade, “Hellion” (available on demand starting Friday) maintains a sense of hope despite doom-laden circumstances. According to the movie’s writer/director Kat Candler, her goal as a filmmaker was to figure out what had brought her characters — 13-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins) and his widowed father, Hollis (Aaron Paul) — to the brink of catastrophe, and how they might heal.
“Everyone responds to grief in different ways, sometimes destructive,” said Candler by phone from Seattle, where she introduced a film festival screening of “Hellion” last month. “I was interested in capturing the ripple effects of pain, particularly among kids who don’t know how to process difficult emotions yet. Somehow they have to take responsibility for their choices.”
Encouraged by the film’s producer to shoot the movie in southeast Texas, Candler found her hellion in the form of a “polite and normal” young Texan who had never acted before.
“I’d seen hundreds of kids for the part, and the process had become a little numbing,” Candler recalls. Then she met Wiggins. “He wasn’t trying to act or pretend in any way,” said the director. “He was just being himself. Then, as soon as we started shooting, he was completely professional — more so than some adults I’ve worked with.”
For the part of Hollis, an alcoholic father fighting the urge to disappear on another binge, Candler landed Paul, who had just finished his Emmy-winning stint as Jesse on “Breaking Bad.” The actor had seen Candler’s short version of “Hellion” from 2012, responded to the material and trusted the first-time feature director, who was amazed at his decision to “put everything in my hands.”
The star placed his faith in young Wiggins, as well. “Aaron took Josh under his wing during the shoot, and the two of them became very close,” Candler said. “To this day, Aaron has stayed in touch with Josh, giving him advice on the movies he’s shooting now.”
Although the kids of “Hellion” are more interested in motocross racing and speed metal than texting, Candler, who has said the “youth of America are getting angrier,” cited the Internet as a primary cause of kids “having to grow up quicker and harder-edged.”
“It’s easy now for kids to have a voice, and easy for them to hide behind a computer. There’s so much cruel, hurtful communication out there. I can’t imagine being a teenager now.”
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In addition to its contemporary influences, “Hellion” was inspired in part by 1979’s “Over the Edge” (available for rent via iTunes, Google Play and Vudu), in which Matt Dillon plays a Texas teen who, along with his pals, gets involved in sex, drugs and gunplay.
“Man, I was blown away by that movie,” said Candler. “The realism of it is amazing. It totally captures not just the wildness of youth, but the boredom, too. Can you believe it was Matt Dillon’s first movie? Already at that age, he had such confidence and charisma.
“You can tell it’s a ’70s movie because it’s so gritty, so un-Hollywood. There’s something really magical about the films of that time.”