Film festival programming is not an easy task; programmers try to spread the screenings out over the festival dates in order to have quality, or “buzzed about,” films playing throughout the week.

For SXSW, I was a bit worried after Day 3 that the fest was a bit front-loaded with my favorites – that I would have to endure the last few days — but I am glad to admit that I was wrong. My second favorite film of the YEAR, falling ever so slightly behind Boyhood, is Kat Candler’s Hellion.

A film about the varying degrees with which we each handle loss, Hellion stars Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, and a host of bright, young talented boys: Josh Wiggins, Deke Garner, and Dalton Sutton, among others. Jacob (Wiggins) is rebelling against any responsibility in the wake of his mother’s tragic death; if he receives one more strike against his record, he’ll be thrown into Juvenile Detention. To make matters worse, all of Jacob’s legal troubles shed light onto the family’s dysfunction. His father Hollis (Aaron Paul) is rarely home, off drinking his troubles away and trying to restore his wife’s dream home in Galveston. This leaves little brother Wes (Garner) to follow Jacob around. When CPS finally intervenes, placing Wes with aunt Pam (Lewis), Jacob and Hollis must try to put their home — and lives – back on track in order to bring Wes home.

Hellion explores the lengths we all go to fill a void in our lives: Wes is desperate for any kind of caregiver, Jacob wants to eradicate any link to himself and responsibility, wanting desperately to be that child again, and Hollis – a former baseball star — needs to destroy himself because he cannot be a father. The film is filled with complicated characters that never feel forced or designed. The story unfolds organically, stacking real-world problems, never taking the easy way out or patching up problems that must be confronted. The resolution is therefore earned in a way that other films about familial strife rarely succeed. Nothing is shied away from or glossed over. You cringe the whole film, stomach in knots, for the mistakes all of these people make. Everything feels so real, it could be your family; but there is enough drama to understand why this particular real story had to be told. Perhaps the most complex character is that of Hollis’s sister-in-law Pam. Never wanting kids of her own before Wes is dropped in her lap, her need to hold onto the boy signifies a great yearning for any piece of her sister, and a need to better her life and feelings through the child. Her desperation is clouded by her seemingly “together” life, and it shines a light on how wrong a court can be in making decisions based on income and past mistakes.

Director Kat Candler’s ability to challenge her actors, especially ones so young, into these performances is unmatched. Brett Pawlak’s cinematography of the large Texas skies, bleak town corners, and menacing places of correction fits well into Candler’s genuine style. The script’s dialogue, not overtly witty or forced, flows freely from the actors’ mouths. It is difficult to determine where the characters are headed, but the destination makes sense and is ultimately satisfying, albeit not terribly uplifting. Deneice O’Connor’s sets are faithfully Texas and inform much about each character’s situation.

The final image of the film, both framed and colored beautifully, is bittersweet, but true. It is neither extreme one way nor the other, and no character is exploited on the way to the denouement. It is obvious much thought was put in the film, nothing left to chance, and it is so rare to see that in “low-budget” film these days. Often, directors must sacrifice their vision for the sake of the dollar – but I cannot image that happened here. Nothing seemed tacked on or compromised. This is a beautiful film from beginning to end. Paul is challenging himself in ways that should inspire hope in those that were worried during the campy Need For Speed, and Josh Wiggins fills the frame with a ease that rarely comes to an actor so young. I imagine the young man will have a promising career, should he choose. The first step is to continue working with directors like Kat Candler.

Grade: A. Kat Candler is a visionary director who knows how to tell a story about real characters. Fearless, thoughtful, gorgeous film, highlighted with marvelous performances by all involved. Give Josh Wiggins an Oscar. Today.

Final Thoughts:

I had a conversation, waiting in line for another film, as we often do at South By, with another critic who spoke in length about his disinterest in viewing films without “name talent.” It is his opinion, and an opinion shared by many others, that independent films featuring a cast of non A-listers are inferior to those with “stars.” Though Hellion boasts a cast with Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis, it is perhaps the work of Josh Wiggins, in his first professional acting role, that holds the film together. You know my opinion on this, if you read my review of Neighbors. If that garbage is what you want to clog your cinema screens, by all means, do not take a chance on Hellion or any other independent films with names you do not recognize. But remember this: Ethan Hawke, Aaron Paul, Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and all those other actors you love so much, began somewhere. Someone took a chance on them and bought a ticket to their film. And some critic had the diligence to review them. And though not many people may be reading my thoughts now, I vow to always support local cinema, first time filmmakers, and new talent. Besides. That’s how you get invited to eventual A-lister parties. Don’t you know?

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