Hesher (2010) dir. Spencer Susser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Natalie Portman, Piper Laurie, Rainn Wilson
By Alan Bacchus
TJ, an 11 year old boy dealing with the recent death of his mother just cannot seem to find a way to channel his grief. In the opening scene he’s chasing a tow truck driving the damaged family car which became the instrument of his mother’s death. For much of the film TJ sees this car as his last attachment to his mother, thus a misdirected symbol of his inability to move on.
His father Paul (Rainn Wilson), is not helping, moping around the house in jogging pants refusing to raise an inflection of his voice above a soft whimper. Living with the two, and trying to maintain optimism is the spry grandmother.
Thus arrives Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a teenaged metal head anarchist wearing long head-banging hair, and a tattoo of his middle finger on his back. Hesher enter TJ’s life as a force nature and becomes both the devil and the angel on his shoulder, a big brother and surrogate father. After a brief meeting in a vacant housing community where Hesher lights firebombs he arbitrarily shows up in TJ’s house to do laundry. Hesher doesn’t take no for an answer and by confidence, force and chutzpah manages to become part of the family.
Hesher’s a walking contradiction, at once a protector for TJ, a Tyler Durdon, who helps him loosen up and take confidence and authority in his life, and on the other a firecracker with tendencies toward dangerous violence against TJ. When the boy develops a crush on the waifish young grocery store clerk, Nicole (Natalie Portman) TJ forms a unique oddball trio of misfits on a ride of anarchic destruction around LA.
In dollups Hesher is the work of a creative talent with a unique voice in black comedy. Hesher is a hurricane of a character and director Susser even gives him heavy metal music stings to announce his presence. As played by the star-in-the-making Joseph Gordon-Levitt Hesher becomes the heaviest burden on the film. While his outrageous behaviour continually shocks us in humorous ways - the swimming pool scene is a standalone masterpiece scene of destructive rage - Susser doesn’t seem to be able to reconcile his character’s motivations consistently throughout the film. One moment he’s acting like a protective big brother, the other he‘s strangling the kid or punching his father.
Despite Levitt’s loud and boisterous performance, Piper Laurie steals the show. She’s almost unrecognizable as the sweet but sickly grandmother who doesn’t have enough energy to heal and consol TJ and Paul on her own. Yet, in one remarkable scene, Hesher and Grandma bonding over a bong, she manages to see through Hesher’s bravado (almost). Laurie’s performance echoes Alan Arkin’s Oscar-winning turn in ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, and don’t count out this type of award consideration this time next year.
In the end, TJ's arc goes it where it should, Hesher providing the impetus for the family to move on. But the unevenness results in the film feeling like a collection of characters, tones and ideas without fully congealing into a whole equal to the sum of its parts.