Josh Wiggins (left) and Aaron Paul in Hellion.
Lauren Logan. Copyright Across Town Productions. An IFC Films release

Hellion’s Aaron Paul and the Art of Collapse


A version of this story ran in the September 2014 issue.

During his five-year run as tragically unlucky drug dealer Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul evolved into Hollywood’s greatest artist of collapse. Beaten by his enemies, abused by his partners, hooked on meth, enslaved by neo-Nazis and witness to the violent deaths of pretty much anyone he ever loved, Jesse’s life was plotted on a trajectory that always pointed down. As Paul became a more nuanced actor over the show’s run, he was able to tap into ever-deeper reserves of anger, depression, rage, disassociation and, eventually, cosmic resignation, capturing the essence of existential disappointment like few actors have.

Hellion is a story about childhood scars and all the lingering, unspoken consequences that come from growing up in a world where all the doors seem locked and adults have no more answers than the kids do.

Which made him the perfect choice to play the lead in the latest film from Austin-based writer/director Kat Candler. Hellion, which will be released on DVD Sept. 30, is a story about interior calamity, about the beatings a human being can take and the thousand and one ways we avoid the emotional implications of those beatings, all of which is right in Paul’s wheelhouse. He plays Hollis Wilson, a young man in Southeast Texas whose wife has died, leaving him with a bottomless well of pain and regret, a serious alcohol problem, and two sons, one of whom, Jacob, has directed his own sadness into a life of juvenile delinquency and blossoming criminality. The younger sibling, Wes, is poised to follow his older brother down the same dark path. Drowning in his own sorrow, their father seems powerless to stop his family’s dissolution. That’s probably because Hollis is really no different from his sons. Hidden behind his beard, trucker cap and thousand-yard stare, he’s a scattergun of emotional repression, misdirected testosterone and impotent rage: a boy disguised as a man.

Even when Wes is scooped up by Child Protective Services and taken to live with his aunt, played by Juliette Lewis, it’s 13-year-old Jacob, not Hollis, who comes up with a plan to get him back. That plan may be misguided and doomed to end in tragedy, but in a world where everything else has been taken away and nothing seems to matter, doing something—doing anything—is preferable to lying down in despair, which is Hollis’ only response.

Candler, a longtime Austinite and lecturer at the University of Texas, filmed her movie in economically damaged Port Arthur, where, she has said, “refineries loom over Little League fields” and kids are “going through stuff well beyond their years.” Hellion is crawling with these kids, early adolescents learning to cope in a world all but abandoned by adults. What few adults they do know are sources of either disappointment or arbitrary authority. So the kids fight and they steal and they burn things and they break things  and eventually the guns are drawn. Family histories leak out in fits and starts, all of them full of betrayal.

Like a blackened response to Richard Linklater’s recently released Boyhood, Hellion is a story about childhood scars and all the lingering, unspoken consequences that come from growing up in a world where all the doors seem locked and adults have no more answers than the kids do. But where Boyhood’s hero, Mason, responds to the confusions of life with a budding artist’s wonder and bemusement, Hellion’s Jacob lashes out, resigned to his lack of understanding but refusing to accept the world he’s inherited without getting his own licks in. The role requires a remarkably potent blend of passion and disaffection, and Josh Wiggins, in his first movie, somehow manages to capture all of it, scoring a victory for emotional realism even in the film’s third act, when an overcooked climax and melodramatic ending threaten to overwhelm the film’s unforced honesty.

Wiggins isn’t just a talented and charismatic young performer; he’s the perfect actor to play Hollis Wilson’s oldest son because he’s a spiritual heir to Aaron Paul. Nobody plays traumatized the way these two actors do. They seem to feel most at home in a world in which everything is constantly falling apart, where redemption is barely a possibility, resistance is pointless, and merely hoping for something like salvation has to be enough.

Watch the trailer for Hellion.