The Jumping-Off Point

Kat Candler continues her chronicles of youthful frenzy in 'Hellion'

The Jumping-Off Point
Photo by John Anderson

It wouldn't be winter in Park City, Utah, without a brace of Austin filmmakers entering the annual Sundance/Slamdance fray, and this year is no exception. Nine Austin filmmakers, among them alumni like Kyle Henry (Fourplay) and David and Nathan Zellner (Kid-Thing), will be heading west along with their producers, casts, and assorted crew. With stories and styles ranging from animation to shorts to features, the Austin film scene will be, as ever, well represented in Park City. Produced by Kelly Williams, Kat Candler's Sundance 2012 entry, "Hellion," is a case in point – and classic Kat, too: a short film with huge emotions. Bad kids, sad kids, angry dads, and plenty of Candler's trademark comic yet earnest heart make for a memorably fractious collision of brotherly responsibility and shared adolescent rage. It's instantly identifiable as a Candler film, anchored by powerhouse performances from three tweener leads (Deke Garner, Tommy Hohl, Arthur Dale), and, like so much of Candler's work, easily and knowingly slips inside the headspace of both its young protagonist and his bullying brothers with an empathetic ease that dazzles in its playful naturalism.

"I love all things kids," says Candler, "and I love all things teenage. I think I still live in that world in my head a lot."

Both of Candler's previous features, her 2000 debut Cicadas (which won that year's Audience Award at the Austin Film Festival) and 2006's Jumping Off Bridges, bobbed amidst the choppy waters of childhood milieus, often with dark parental overtones. (Similar themes will doubtless arise in her upcoming feature Nikki Is a Punk Rocker.) Throughout her work, there's a realistic undercurrent of tension between kids and their parents, and adulthood is rarely seen as a safe haven.

"I'm pretty much a sucker for anything that involves parents and children. It doesn't matter what type of film it is, either. I love horror films, but I think the greatest of them involve the parent-child dynamic. For whatever reason, I respond to youth."

As for her incredibly naturalistic portraits of youth in and out of peril, it's worth noting that despite the absolute narrative realism of, say, Jumping Off Bridges, which explores the repercussions of a parental suicide on a close-knit group of teenage friends, Candler's stories are born less as screenplays to be shot that stories to be told.

"I got my degree in creative writing, and I never had the class or the instruction on how to write a script or the craft of screenwriting. It was always much more about how to tell a good story, first and foremost. In the last several years, I've gone back and studied screenwriting [she's taught screenwriting at Texas State University and is currently a lecturer at the University of Texas] and I've been really trying to hone those skills. The art of storytelling is where I've probably grown the most [since Cicadas]. With the camera and stuff, you grow innately from film to film to film. But ultimately, everything goes back to having a good story, crafting good characters, and trying to create those edge-of-your-seat moments that make a film so memorable."

"Hellion" world premieres Jan. 21 at the Sundance Film Festival, with additional screenings throughout the fest.

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Kat Candler, Hellion, Kelly Williams, Sundance, Cicadas, Jumping off Bridges, Nikki Is a Punk Rocker, Deke Garner, Tommy Hohl, Arthur Dale, Jonny Mars

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