Aaron Paul

Jacob (Josh Wiggins) and Roger (Camron Owens) are up to no good in Kat Candler's "Hellion." Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of press | Daily Texan Staff

With buzz for the film steadily building out of its Sundance and SXSW screenings, “Hellion” is one of the most heavily hyped indie releases of the summer. Not only is it Aaron Paul’s most substantial role since the conclusion of “Breaking Bad,” but it’s also a great showcase for the talents of UT professor and writer/director Kat Candler, who establishes herself here as a promising voice in indie cinema. A downbeat but beautifully acted exploration of grief and deeply felt defeats, “Hellion” marks an impressive third feature for Candler.

Newcomer Josh Wiggins stars as Jacob Wilson, the titular troublemaker whose antics in the aftermath of his mother’s death cause Child Protective Services to take a closer look at his family. His father, Hollis (Aaron Paul), is falling apart, blinded by grief as he fumbles through life, and his younger brother, Wes (Deke Garner), is taken away and put in the custody of their aunt, Pam (Juliette Lewis).

“Hellion” was filmed in the port cities of Texas, and Candler wrings plentiful atmosphere out of her setting, creating a world brimming with rage and grief, setting the mood with energetic heavy metal music. The film’s most energetic scenes show Jacob and Wes wreaking havoc to shrieking guitars, but Candler is just as effective in the quieter moments. Her storytelling is remarkably efficient, especially in the opening stretches of the film, which forgo excessive dialogue and allow the measured but emphatic performances to tell the audience what’s important to the characters and what the stakes of the story will be.

Of the many great performances in “Hellion,” the best is also the riskiest. Candler had to gamble on Josh Wiggins, who had never acted before, but Wiggins’ pained portrayal of a boy reeling as his family collapses is heartwrenching. Wiggins sells every moment of confused rage and regret, and plays beautifully off of Deke Garner, who plays his younger brother. Garner was in the short film that Candler expanded into “Hellion,” and proves to be a skilled, understated young actor. His performance is surprisingly complex, as Wes thrives on having maternal attention again but remains guilty about leaving his brother and father behind.

Among the adult performances, Aaron Paul continues his streak of playing the tortured character he made his name with on “Breaking Bad.” It’s a smart bit of casting, asking what happens when the train wreck character Paul specializes in is responsible for human lives, and despite an occasionally spotty accent, his performance is painfully raw.

Juliette Lewis is just as good but plays the film’s most problematic character. Rather than defining the plot, Pam is defined by its needs, and she’s often cruelly antagonistic because the film needs some conflict. Candler does a good job making Pam’s irrational villainy feel like the pettiness that often pops up in tumultuous family conflicts, but Lewis’ performance is much better suited to the moments of tenderness between Wes and Pam than to the ugly side she shows when dealing with the other characters.

If there’s a major complaint to be filed against “Hellion,” it’s in the film’s finale, which dramatically raises the tension and stakes only to end on a fairly inconclusive note. While the main character’s future is reasonably easy to assume, the issue of Wes’ custody is left frustratingly unresolved. The ending is also relentlessly bleak, offering the slightest of silver linings, and after the painful 90 minutes that preceded it, a hint of redemption or happiness for the characters would have been appreciated.

It’s a testament to the power of the story and characters Candler has created that any issues with “Hellion” arise from the conflict she injects into the film. The characters are so well drawn and the actors portraying them are so perfectly tuned that it’s genuinely painful to watch them put through Candler’s emotional wringer. “Hellion” is a savvy bit of summer counter-programming, an impressive declaration of voice that brings an honest perspective to a painful story that easily lives up to the hype.

Candler will be present for Q&A at the 5:10 p.m., 7:00 p.m. and 9:20 p.m. Saturday and Sunday showings of "Hellion" at the Violet Crown.

Director: Kat Candler
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 99 minutes

Kat Candler, UT professor and videographer, has taught film production since 2008. So far three of Candler’s films have been shown at the Sundance Festival and she will be showing her new film, Hellion, during SXSW this year.

Photo Credit: Jarrid Denman | Daily Texan Staff

The raging guitar of a heavy metal song blasts as fire crackles in a burning pickup truck. A gaggle of teens smash the windows, gleefully basking in the warming glow of their destruction. As the truck’s owner runs toward his car, screaming profanities, the hell-raisers sprint off, giggling until they see the flashing lights of police cars speed into view.

This is the energetic opening of UT professor Kat Candler’s feature film, “Hellion,” which is playing at this year’s SXSW festival. One might expect such a vivid snapshot of teen rebellion to come from a younger, angrier voice than Candler — whose appearance and demeanor couldn’t be friendlier — but the inspiration for “Hellion” came from an authentic place: Candler’s own family history.

“All three of my uncles were hell-raisers when they were kids,” Candler said. “My Uncle Frank tells a story of how him and his two brothers set fire to my grandfather’s Jeep when they were very little … That idea of this father and these unruly boys — I loved that dynamic and that father’s struggle with these kids.”

Her uncles’ childhood antics formed the basis for “Hellion,” a 2012 short film that was expanded into a feature and premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The film stars newcomer Josh Wiggins as Jacob, a teen struggling to get over his mother’s death.

Candler discovered Wiggins on YouTube after a fellow producer recommended his videos. All that was left was to make sure he had good on-screen chemistry with co-star Aaron Paul.

“I sent Aaron this one callback that Josh did, the pizza scene, he just breaks your heart,” Candler said. “So it came down to Josh and this kid from LA who was great in his own right. Josh walked into the room with Aaron, in his shorts and T-shirt, just totally cool and collected and professional. As soon as the two of them started reading, I remember turning around to my casting director and saying, ‘OK, this is it.’”

Candler balances filmmaking with teaching an advanced narrative production course for radio-television-film students at UT. She got her own crash course in filmmaking at Florida State University, where she studied creative writing.

“I worked in a movie theater from age 15 all through college,” Candler said. “It didn’t pay a lot of money, but I’ve gotten used to that in my entire life. But I got to watch movies constantly … So I’ve always been a huge movie fan, but I didn’t know how they were made.”

In college, Candler was invited to work on a set for the first time by some film students she knew. 

“I just watched the whole process of the [director of photography] setting up lights and the director working with the actors. I realized it wasn’t rocket science to make a movie.”

Since then, Candler has been working steadily, directing four short films in addition to her feature adaptation of “Hellion” in the six years she’s taught at UT. Her students appreciate having a teacher with hands-on experience in filmmaking.

“The biggest benefit of having Kat as a teacher is getting a sense of working with someone who’s from the industry,” said radio-television-film senior Dew Napattaloong. “She’s bringing in all these people who she’s met through Sundance, and they provide us with experience and knowledge. When I do stuff in her class, I feel like I have to meet a standard, and that credibility goes into everything we do.”

The work ethic that Candler’s students exhibit is an inspiration to her. 

“I had this story [of ‘Hellion’] for years, and finally wrote it down back in 2009,” Candler said. “So I was teaching at UT, and I see my kids shooting movies all the time, and I’m like, ‘Why am I not shooting movies all the time too?’ So I handed it to Kelly Williams, my producer, and was like ‘Let’s just fucking make something this summer.’ And that’s how it all started, without any expectations or anything. We just wanted to make a movie.”

For aspiring filmmakers who aren’t in her class, Candler has three lessons.

“Be nice, be professional and work your ass off,” Candler said. “It’s pretty simple, but it’s true. I tell my students, ‘Your job interview started when you started college, because all of us work in the industry. We all know everyone, and it’s a small community. Austin, New York, LA, everybody knows everybody. You want to be the person that we want to work with, and that is a good human being, a professional.”

There’s an energy to Candler when she speaks, which is reflected in the energetic metal songs on “Hellion”’s soundtrack. 

“I kept telling them to turn the whole thing up,” Candler said. “From the very first scene, I just want to punch people in the face.”

Charlie (Aaron Paul) and Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) share a rare happy moment in “Smashed.”  Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

November is apparently the month of the alcoholism message movie, and between last week’s harrowing “Flight” and Sony Pictures Classics’ unsettling “Smashed,” the topic has been getting a lot of play on the big screen lately. It’s hard not to draw comparisons between the two films, but “Smashed” is an entirely different animal, a much more simplistic but emotional portrayal of a marriage collapsing under the harsh light of sobriety.

Alcohol has always been a factor in the relationship between Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul), and the two are already deep in a mutually propulsive spiral when the film begins. After Kate, a first grade teacher, vomits in front of her class, she begins to realize she may have a problem. With the help of co-worker Dave (Nick Offerman), Kate begins to take steps toward recovery, something that pushes her apart from her husband even as it helps her gain control of her life.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a consistently unpredictable screen presence, and it’s never certain if she will be the dull, pretty face of “Death Proof” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” or the interesting performer from “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Fortunately, “Smashed” may be her best showcase yet, a role without any room for vanity or self-awareness, and Winstead throws herself into it admirably. The film essentially asks her to play two different people, and the animalistic depravity of Kate in the film’s opening is a marked difference from the clarity and focus she has once she starts attending AA meetings. Winstead is powerful and understated here, and she shows off a surprisingly effective dramatic skill set.

Unfortunately, “Smashed” spends the majority of its runtime focused almost exclusively on Winstead, and that small scope ends up drastically hurting the film. At only 75 minutes without credits, it’s hard not to feel a bit cheated having plunked down the money for a full ticket only to get about two-thirds of a movie. The film’s central tension focuses on Kate and Charlie’s marriage, but we never really get a sense of Charlie as a character. As good as Paul is, Charlie never ascends beyond a paper-thin enabler, the soft-voiced devil on Kate’s shoulder. There’s no reason for the audience to invest in their marriage, and the film’s climax jumps to a foregone conclusion without giving us any reason to care about it one way or another.

Director James Ponsoldt, who co-wrote “Smashed”’s script with Susan Burke, displays a stronger sense of his story and characters behind the camera. The film’s look is notable, especially for the stark visual contrasts Ponsoldt brings to Kate’s levels of sobriety. When she’s drunk, the camera takes an impressionable lilt, becoming more and more erratic the more Kate imbibes, and her sober scenes are met with steadiness and a more restrained aesthetic. It is an interesting, creative way to approach Kate’s struggle and a subtle visual signature for Ponsoldt.

Although “Smashed” suffers from its slightness, it’s still a well written and directed film that never veers into sentimentality. There’s no sugar-coating of alcoholism here, and although many of the film’s supporting characters could have used some fleshing out, actors like Offerman, Paul and Octavia Spencer still impress. Even though there’s a lot to like about the film, there’s so little to it that it’s hard to recommend a pricey theater viewing. However, its scale is so small and its struggles so quiet that it could make for an even more effective experience on video, and it’s certainly worth what little of your time for which it asks.

Printed on Friday, November 9, 2012 as: 'Smashed' avoids mush, probes into alcoholism 

TV Tuesday

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul star as crystal meth cookers in AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” (Photo Courtesy of AMC)

Editor's Notes: The following review of the new season of "Breaking Bad" contains spoilers about the next two episodes of season four.

From its very first episode, the Emmy Award-winning drama “Breaking Bad” has been something different. Its pilot instantly joined the ranks of the best in the history of television — an intense, memorable episode bolstered by Bryan Cranston’s career-defining performance. From there, “Breaking Bad” has only gotten better, right through its astonishingly great third season that climaxed with a brutal cliffhanger.

Sunday’s season premiere “Box Cutter” dealt with this cliffhanger, which involved Aaron Paul’s Jesse one trigger-pull away from killing his first man ­— the innocent, nauseatingly cultured Gale (David Costabile) — so he and Walt (Bryan Cranston) could live. In classic “Breaking Bad” fashion, the episode dragged out the tension to almost comical lengths before the normally calm and collected Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) arrived in his multimillion dollar meth lab and brutally murdered lackey Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui).

If there’s one thing “Breaking Bad” does well, it’s the shocking moment — that “holy shit!” plot twist that leaves the viewer’s mouth agape. Ever since the show put Danny Trejo’s severed head on an exploding turtle, it’s taken almost gleeful joy in contorting the audience’s expectations, drawing conflicts out as long as it possibly can before exploding into a burst of sudden violence. While Victor’s murder doesn’t quite reach the heights of the aforementioned Trejo scene or DEA agent Hank’s (Dean Norris) gunfight with cartel assassins from last season, it’s still one of those signature moments. The ones that cause congregations around the water cooler on Monday mornings.

The next two episodes, which were made available for critics, don’t have any of those mind-blowing moments, but are still obviously the work of masters of the medium. Series creator Vince Gilligan, who cut his teeth on “The X-Files,” has made a definite habit of spacing out big events in the story, letting the space between fill with spectacular acting and mood to spare.

From the pilot episode, Bryan Cranston has been an unstoppable hurricane of acting, blowing away co-stars with ease in every episode. He commands his every scene, and even while Walt scrambles to survive. Cranston performs with a fearless confidence that marks his Walter White as one of the all-time great television anti-heroes.

Not to say the rest of the cast is slacking. Aaron Paul nailed the multitude of monologues Gilligan sent his way last season, and as he recovers from his first murder, he does equally riveting work with significantly less dialogue. Dean Norris, who shone in the early half of Season 3 before being sidelined for its home stretch, is very strong as a bullet-riddled Hank attempts to get back on his feet (literally). Meanwhile, Bob Odenkirk’s smarmy lawyer remains a fountain of hilarious one-liners and Jonathan Banks’ cop-turned-assassin gets a welcome increase in screen time without robbing his character of his dangerous mystique.

And even if the cast was weaker, “Breaking Bad” would still be the prettiest show on television. Director of Photography Michael Slovis has made a habit of coaxing some downright dazzling imagery out of the show’s harsh New Mexico landscape; and Vince Gilligan’s glacial pacing is hypnotic rather than frustrating, keeping audiences hooked with bread crumbs of greater things to come, rather than frustrating them with the fact that there’s not a huge amount of story movement.

With its second season, “Breaking Bad” became the best show on television. With its third, it became a worthy challenger to enter the realm of the all-time bests, up there with the likes of “Deadwood” and “The Wire.” And now, with its fourth, it’s primed to solidify its place among the greats, and it’s only becoming more and more addictive to see what dark, violent places “Breaking Bad” and Walter White will go next.