After Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," or a documentary like Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo's "Rich Hill," anyone making a coming-of-age movie will have to elevate her game. Invidious though such comparisons might be, Kat Candler's "Hellion," however heartfelt and well-intended, just doesn't measure up.
In a working-class east Texas town, 13-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins), the hellion of the title, speeds out on his motocross bike to the parking lot of a football stadium. There he and his crew of fellow troublemakers, which includes his younger brother, Wes (Deke Garner), senselessly bash in a pick-up truck with baseball bats. For some reason, Candler intercuts the punks' destructive frenzy with shots of the game going on inside – maybe to suggest that if these kids just had a structured outlet for their energy, maybe they wouldn't act up so much, or maybe just because it looks cinematic.
So why is Jacob angry? For one thing, he doesn't care much for his dad, Hollis (Aaron Paul of "Breaking Bad"). Bearded and hangdog and perpetually wearing a sweat-stained baseball cap, Hollis picks up his rebel without a cause at the police station where he has been let off easy with six months' probation. Dad chides Jacob for failing to take responsibility for his actions and, worse, involving Wes. So he takes away the motocross bike. "I hate you!" concludes Jacob.
And who can blame him? As various hints suggest, Hollis, a onetime local baseball star, has fallen apart since the death of his wife, the boys' mother. He neglects his sons and spends most of his time drinking beer and puttering around trying to restore the Galveston beach house that was apparently his wife's pet project. A metaphor, it would seem, for his refusal to move on from broken dreams to taking responsibility for his inaction.
Not just Jacob is annoyed; so are the Child Protective Services people. They take a look at the two unsupervised kids in their squalid home, littered with pizza boxes, dirty dishes, and beer cans, and put the as-yet-uncorrupted Wes into the custody of Hollis's sister-in-law, Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis, in her least distinctive role to date). Somehow, Jacob figures he can solve everything by winning an upcoming motocross race, but then Aunt Pam plans to move to Houston with Wes, and then there's a home invasion and a gun is pulled. . . .
Based on her short film, Candler's "Hellion" pads its slender, commonplace, but potentially rewarding premise with contrivances, clichés, repetitiousness, and, when all else fails, implausible, arbitrary melodrama. Josh Wiggins does the most with the little he has to work with – the kid has a mean glower and an endearing vulnerability. He comes closer than anything else in the film to tapping into the terror and ecstasy of growing up.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.