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Hellion proves that being a troubled child doesn’t automatically make you an interesting one. The movie delves into the lives of small-town Texas kids who want nothing more than to listen to heavy metal, vandalize property, light stuff on fire and become professional dirtbike racers. But its insights are so thin and its characters and visuals so monotonous, the only memorable moments are memorable for how ludicrous, sensationalized and cringe-inducing they are.

It’s really a missed opportunity when you consider the talented cast, fronted by Josh Wiggins as troubled teenager Jacob and Aaron Paul as his father, Hollis. We meet Jacob and his fellow outcast friends as they smash up a truck in the high-school parking lot. Jacob’s little brother, Wes (Deke Garner), comes along, too. Unfortunately, they’re better at committing crimes than fleeing the scene, and Jacob looks like he’s almost pushed the local law-enforcement past the point of forgiveness.

Hollis doesn’t want his son to be a juvenile delinquent, but isn’t an ideal father to prevent it. After his wife’s death, he’s engaged in varying degrees of alcoholism and physical and mental absence. His negligence, coupled with Jacob’s troublemaking, leads law enforcement to revoke custody of young Wes.

Writer/director Kat Candler throws in so many elements that none of them ever gel or pay off in a satisfying way. Everything is in there, but nothing is distinct. The tale ambles forward on a mishmash of subplots. Jacob yearns to have his little brother back. Hollis obsesses over a house he was supposed to fix up for his dead wife. Jacob pins all his hopes on winning a local dirtbike competition. Jacob’s friends try to cope with their own troubled lives.

The movie’s inability to truly understand its characters is best seen in Jacob’s aunt, Pam, played by Juliette Lewis. While Lewis does her best to imbue the character with a sympathetic attitude, there’s nothing she can do. The screenplay merely uses her as a plot device to trigger dramatic responses in Jacob and Hollis. She takes custody of little Wes and immediately keeps him isolated from Jacob and Hollis, even when she could let the brothers meet in a controlled, supervised environment. Maybe she’s sick of trying to help this alcoholic and this hoodlum, maybe she’s decided there’s nothing to be done to salvage their lives and she simply needs to take Wes away and never let them see him. But even if that’s the case, she should still be able to see where a little bit of diplomacy would make things easier on everyone.

But Hellion depends on easy excuses to trigger fits of anger and violence in its characters. Where a smarter movie might explore how both child and adult bring conflict upon themselves, this one is content to freely hand them reasons to act out. It weakens the impact when everything happens because a screenwriter decided it should. When a story gets where it’s going naturally, with real humans and real thoughts, the rewards come out on their own.

The movie dashes any lingering hopes of redemption with an appallingly contrived third act. All its earlier failings come back amplified. There won’t even be an effort to reach a genuine emotional resolution. Any hope of finding truth or empathy goes out the door. This is sensationalism for its own sake—not honest enough to fit its realist style and tone, not wild enough to work as entertainment.

Director: Kat Candler
Writer: Kat Candler
Starring: Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, Josh Wiggins, Deke Garner
Release Date: June 13, 2014