American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
At different points through Kat Candler's devastating feature "Hellion," the young Wilson brothers—10-year-old Wes (Deke Garner) and 13-year-old Jacob (Josh Higgins)—are seen reading "Swiss Family Robinson," a story about a family shipwrecked in the East Indies, who create a new home for themselves on a deserted island. Without driving the point home sledgehammer-style, the presence of "Swiss Family Robinson" is a reminder that what we are seeing in "Hellion" is also a shipwrecked family—shipwrecked by loss, alcoholism, poverty, and neglect. One of "Hellion"'s major strengths is that it shows how quickly things can spin out of control, how one or two defining events can derail a life forever. Told with much sentiment and almost no sentimentality, "Hellion" is a well-observed and patiently told story, with one good scene after another, featuring amazing performances across the board, but particularly from newcomer Josh Wiggins.
The Wilson family consists of dad Hollis ("Breaking Bad"'s Aaron Paul, in yet another remarkable performance) and the two aforementioned sons. The mother has died, leaving behind an abyss in her wake, as well as her fragile dream that re-locating to Galveston will somehow give the family a fresh start. Hollis continues to invest in his dead wife's dream, driving the 40 miles to Galveston to work on their wrecked house (already in foreclosure). In the meantime, his two sons rage free, completely unmonitored. It's not that Hollis doesn't love his sons. He does. But his own grief and loss, not to mention alcoholism, has made him incapable of caring for them or himself.
13-year-old Jacob is first seen trashing a pickup truck outside a football stadium with his group of buddies he calls "the crew". Metallica and Slayer and other heavy metal monsters grind through the soundtrack, providing a violent, driving subtext to the often-melancholy scenes. Jacob is basically in charge of his younger brother, and he takes that as seriously as a 13-year-old boy can take it. But he is too young to be a caretaker; he favors Wonder Bread with whipped cream and sugar for lunch, and he has already been placed in a juvenile detention program, threatened with being locked up for the rest of his adolescence if he doesn't get his act together. Worryingly, Jacob starts to involve Wes in the criminal nighttime outings of "the crew".
Hollis, taken up with his own pain, and perhaps residual guilt about descending into a drunken stupor following his wife's death, is seemingly unaware of just how bad things have gotten. His house is a total mess. Beer cans pile up on the counter. He gives Jacob a talking-to about "the crew," but still disappears for days at a time, leaving the boys unattended. His dead wife's sister, Pam (Juliette Lewis), is concerned. She tries to talk to Jacob, but there is little she can actually do.