Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Nightmare Crew

Writer-Director Kat Candler spent a decade honing her craft through shorts dealing with intimate character pieces told with her nurturing, hip, heartfelt touch. She's carefully planned her first big feature with help from the independent filmmaking community in Austin, TX, specifically the Austin Film Society and also from workshops and the eye of the Sundance Institute.

Filmed in October of 2013 on location in Port Neches, Port Arthur, Groves, Nederland, and Galveston, TX, and starring Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis, an expansion of a short she'd made in 2012 called "Hellion," screened at Sundance and South by Southwest in 2014 with a limited theatrical run and VOD release.

Aaron Paul's character HOLLIS is the least interesting part of Hellion (2014, Kat Candler), but the dramatic anchor in the piece. His brooding performance is what is called for, albeit with its tendency to remain locked in a singular specific tone. It lacks the dimensions that arise elsewhere in the ensemble. I'm not talking about Juliette Lewis's AUNT PAM, Hollis' sister who is ordered by Child Protective Services to take young WES into her custody, although Lewis also delivers a decent performance.

The boys are what this is about and Kat is a master at working with these young actors, most of whom have never acted before. Hollis' boys, 8 year old Wes (Deke Garner) and his older brother JACOB (Josh Wiggins) are front and center the protagonists of Hellion.

Jacob rides with his crew HYDER, LANCE, and ROGER riding dirtbikes, listening to heavy metal, and committing senseless acts of vandalism. In the script, Kat referred to these four as The Nightmare Crew, but they are never addressed as such in the finished film.

The opening of the film is the most destructive instance of the Nightmare Crew's mayhem, scored to a high-octane metal scourge, Jacob leads a demolition job on some cars in the parking lot of a high school football game, using baseball bats and gasoline while the boys indulge in full reverie of their power. It sure looks liberating. This scene is crucial because Kat starts with this crescendo of frivolous violence and matches it with a chain reaction of domestic turmoil that grows parallel in pitch with the Nightmare Crew's potential demise and subsequent survival attempts.

Jacob is vulnerable because he's lost his mother and his dad turned into an alcoholic who tried to abandon his sons, leaving Jacob to take care of Wes, unsure of where his father went or when he would return. His anarchy is an external manifestation of his pain, and Wes wants to be just like him.

It's a tearjerker.

The rest of the crew, like Hyder and Roger, are good kids, but they are delinquents out of boredom. They are even kind of pussies. Except for Lance, the beefy kid. Lance reads skin mags and already in early adolescence has acquired a world-weary misogynist disdain for women other than as sex objects, cusses, and like Jacob, comes from a rough home. Lance is played by Dalton Sutton, a young man who had never acted before, and I bond with his character the strongest (it might be also because I worked on this as Second Second Assistant Director and bonded with him the most in real life. He's a good kid. He's the only one of the boys who really lives down in Port Neches and he plays the only character who is really all bad.) But Lance is what Jacob (and Wes) are doomed for if they don't make some serious changes.

The music here fits the respective character as far as its date and style. I love the scenes with Wes and his pop songs. It says so much without words that he's into sweet good stuff too unlike the other headbangers. There is a huge ethical dilemma in Hellion: if Wes loves Aunt Pam and she obviously is capable of providing  a better life for him, then should he leave his dad and brother?

Wes's laugh is hysterically charming because that's the actor Deke's laugh in real life. I swear if you heard him laugh in real life and it doesn't melt your heart than you are a sociopath. I'd worked with Deke on a short a while back and knew him and his dad, Derek. Deke's name is really Derek too, but his dad calls him Deke because he'd loved that name in the Elvis Presley movie Loving You (1957, Hal Kanter) where the King plays Deke Rivers.

The energy and pace of this film has got the intensity of adolescence and the turmoil of small town dysfunctional family hardships to a tee.

The film's not a Hallmark card in the way its denouement leaves open serious questions as to what Jacob's choices are in the future and it ain't no bowl of cherries.

Shot entirely handheld, with lots of long lenses to capture the facial expressions of the actors, the film is a modest success and has cool dirtbike races.

Being on set I definitely shared a huge part of my life with the Nightmare Crew while we were out there and I'm happy I could be there for them. To quote an "Eastbound and Down," line from the first season by Kenny Powers, "I kept it real with those motherfuckers, and they kept it real with me."


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