Film Review: “Hesher”

by Jason LeRoy on May 13, 2011

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in HESHER

starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie, Natalie Portman, John Carroll Lynch

written by: Spencer Susser, David Michôd (screenplay), Brian Charles Frank (story)

directed by: Spencer Susser

MPAA: Rated R for disturbing violent behavior, sexual content including graphic dialogue, pervasive language, and drug content – some in the presence of a child.

Hesher is the kind of peculiar, aggressively ugly indie people will be tricked into seeing because it features an A-list cast. Don’t fall for it. Despite the presence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman (who also produced, for reasons lost on me), this tough-love parable about a grieving family torn out of their inertia by a loser asshole is cringe-inducing, nihilistic, and not particularly good.

In this death metal variation on the old “unwanted houseguest” trope, T.J. (Devin Brochu) is a tween boy grieving the sudden death of his mother several months earlier. He is incredibly angry — not just about his mother’s death, but also at his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), who has allowed himself to become incapacitated by his mourning. He doesn’t leave the house, he doesn’t shave; he mopes around in a pajama-clad, semi-comatose state day after day. In a sense, T.J. has lost both of his parents. He has his sweetly optimistic grandmother, Madeleine (Piper Laurie), who lives with T.J. and Paul, but on some level he’d rather lash out in anger than seek her comfort.

Then, T.J. makes the acquaintance of two new people who will draw him out of (or at least redirect) his myopic rage. The first, Nicole (Portman), is a mousy (“mousy” on Portman = hair in a frizzy bun, ’80s clothes, old lady glasses) grocery store clerk who comes to T.J.’s aid when he’s being beaten by a bully, and on whom he develops a crush. And the second is the titular Hesher (Gordon-Levitt), who is such a monstrously id-driven creation that I was convinced he was imaginary for at least half the movie. I’d have actually preferred if Hesher had been imaginary, a manifestation of T.J.’s pain and anger. But alas, he is real.

If it’s possible to be a total bad-ass without being cool in any conceivable way, Hesher is that. He is a violent, entitled, destructive headbanger who truly does not give a fuck. When T.J. unwittingly forces Hesher to leave the building he’s been squatting in, he comes home to discover Hesher sitting on his couch in his underwear (the ongoing sight of Gordon-Levitt in his tighty-whities is this film’s only pleasure). Between his catatonic father and overly hospitable grandmother, T.J. finds himself without anyone to prevent Hesher from moving in. And with his unapologetically confrontational manner, Hesher gradually forces the family to get their shit together and move on with their lives, while himself being begrudgingly transformed by his unexpected friendship with Madeleine.

It is quite a stretch to imagine any family that would suddenly let a dirty, foul-mouthed, ill-mannered man in his underwear move into their home under the pretense of being friends with a tween boy. Or at least that’s what I thought, until I remembered that my father let a man almost exactly like Hesher become part of our family for many years when I was growing up, and without any trauma to explain it. So, as always, truth is stranger than fiction.

If Hesher can be commended on any level, it’s the acting. Gordon-Levitt vanishes completely into his uncompromising, darkly comedic turn as Hesher. This is the closest he has come to the void since his career-best work in Mysterious Skin, not to discount his disturbing work in Stop-Loss. Devin Brochu is fearless as T.J. I can’t imagine this was an easy part to play, especially for a child actor. Although I admit to being a bit distracted by how much he resembles a young lesbian and, by the transitive property, Justin Bieber. Portman and Wilson are solid in supporting roles, and the great Piper Laurie does fine, touching work as Madeleine.

Beyond the acting, there is little to endorse here. The feature-length directorial debut of Spencer Susser, Hesher would have worked much better if the title character had been a figment of T.J.’s imagination. Instead, it’s nihilism-as-nurture bullshit that awkwardly combines Fight Club and Ordinary People. It wants to celebrate Hesher’s anarchic philosophy as a rallying cry, while at the same time embracing a conventional story arch in which all the characters help each other move on to the next chapters in their lives. Recommended only for die-hard JGL fans.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tamie Lynne May 13, 2011 at 4:36 pm

you’re batshit crazy, j-dogg. any movie that has metallica in the trailer ruleZ.

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