Boyhood in America has never received a richer treatment in the history of cinema than in Richard Linklater’s magnificent Boyhood. Its central character, Mason Jr., has to cope with an unstable family life but otherwise he grows up to be a bright, pleasant young man with a promising future. A very different boyhood is depicted in two other features that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. One is also set in Linklater’s native Texas. The other is a documentary about the lives of three teenage boys from the wrong side of the tracks in small-town Missouri.
As the title suggests, writer-director Kat Candler’s Hellion, developed from a 2012 eponymous short, centres on one very angry rowdy kid. He’s 13-year-old Jacob Wilson (Josh Wiggins) who lives with his alcoholic single dad Hollis (Aaron Paul of TV’s Breaking Bad) and little brother Wes (Deke Garner) in a rundown area of Port Arthur, Texas. The opening scene shows Jacob engaging in a seemingly senseless act of vandalism. He has no respect for his dad who comes across as well-meaning but burdened by personal demons and distinctly lacking in parental skills. A suggestion of blame hangs in the air for the loss of the boys’ mother some time before. Often Jacob is left alone with Wes whom he treats as a nuisance when not manipulating him to help carry out petty crimes. Jacob’s passions are motocross and heavy metal music. He’s hell on wheels on a motorbike.
Hollis wants to move the family to Galveston where he’s been restoring a beach house that the mother loved. But Jacob will have none of it. Their home environment is already in disarray when he trashes it and acts out. At this point the police and social services intercede. The boys are separated for the first time when Wes is removed from the father’s care and put in the custody of an Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis), a protective no-nonsense divorced woman who has a low opinion of Hollis. Jacob ends up in court charged with several minor offences and is put on probation.
Both Hollis and Jacob react badly to their worsening situation. The father goes on a bender and careens out of control, clashing with Jacob and even trying to destroy his bike. He faces a property foreclosure to boot. Jacob tries and fails to get a measure of redemption on the motocross track. Hollis confronts Pam, accusing her of stealing his kid, but loses a custody hearing. When Jacob gets wind of Pam’s plan to take Wes with her to live in Houston, he and several equally disaffected buddies decide to break into her house to get Wes back.
The result is terrifying and tragic, leading to a mad escape by Jacob on his bike pursued by police and a climactic tearful embrace between father and son.
Hellion may be heavy on the melodrama at times, but its female director succeeds in capturing the hurts and insecurities that underlie the outbursts of male aggression. The acting strongly serves the story, especially the astonishing performance of newcomer Wiggins as Jacob. And we’re left with a sliver of hope that reaching the breaking point could also be a catharsis, a first step toward the possibility of reconciliation.
Rich Hill (www.richhillfilm.com), which took the documentary grand jury prize at Sundance, was made by two first cousins whose parents hailed from this small town (population 1,393) in rural Missouri — producer/director Tracy Droz Tragos and producer/director and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo. They wanted to show as realistically as possible what it’s like to come of age in such a town under the kind of rough circumstances facing many American youth. They were granted intimate access to observe three adolescent boys and their families resulting in a telling portrait that’s about as far from Hollywood teen stereotypes as it’s possible to get.
All the boys are troubled in some way. The oldest, Harley, 15, lives with a grandmother and large extended family. His mother is in prison for attempted murder, and he doesn’t like his dad’s new wife. He struggles in school and is put on probation, fearing he may be sent away. A joker, he also admits to having a quick temper and taking medication to control his moods. “Anything could trigger me,” he says.
Andrew, 14, has a twin sister in a large household (nine under age 17) that keeps having to move to cheaper lodgings when his father is between odd jobs and can’t make ends meet. Despite that precarious environment Andrew plays on the football team and has high-school ambitions. At one point the family becomes homeless and the whole brood has to bunk in with relatives. At the end the family leaves Rich Hill for Colorado in search of a new start.
Appachey, 13, is an angry overweight loner who sometimes takes out his frustrations in loud and destructive ways. He’s attached to his skateboard and likes watching violent video games. His home life is messy and provides little positive parental support. (His mom sighs: “I never had a life. I never had any dreams or hopes.”) School is little better as he’s forced to repeat Grade 6. Still he shows off poems he’s written and one senses the exterior toughness shields a deep vulnerability. When, like an older brother, he’s convicted of several offences and sent to a juvenile detention facility, one can only wonder what future awaits him.
There’s no sugar-coating any of these seriously problematic situations. At the same time there’s no looking down on these boys’ lives either. We genuinely get to know each as individuals who deserve to have hopes and dreams too. Why can’t they? When one says, “We’re not trash, we’re good people,” it touches a larger issue of social inclusion and how to improve the prospects for boys like these in the world’s richest country.
Tracy Droz Tragos, whose father was killed in Vietnam, explains that: “At its heart, our film is an invitation to empathy, to share a connection with those who might otherwise be avoided and dismissed. Out of that place of connectedness and shared humanity, we hope audiences will question how we justify denying resources and social capital to vulnerable families, who are, at the most fundamental level, so much like our own.”
Hellion and Rich Hill are worthy additions to important recent films dealing with boys growing up — Linklater’s Boyhood, of course; Mud (2012) by Jeff Nichols, an executive producer on Hellion; Texan Terrence Malik’s masterwork The Tree of Life (2011), also set in Texas; the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike (2011). In none of these are the boys, or their families, particularly exceptional. They don’t do extraordinary things. They don’t live in some Disney world. It is in the very quotidian challenges of the human condition that the drama of their young lives unfolds.