SXSW FILM 2011
By Don Simpson | May 12, 2011
Director: Spencer Susser
Writer: Spencer Susser, David Michôd, Brian Charles Frank
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Rainn Wilson, Brendan Hill, Natalie Portman
T.J.’s (Devin Brochu) mother (Monica Staggs) died a couple months ago in a car wreck (to the tune of “Teenager in Love” playing on the radio). T.J.’s father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), deals with the tragedy by popping enough pills to maintain a near-catatonic level of numbness making him totally oblivious to the world around him. T.J.’s elderly grandma (Piper Laurie) does what she can to help run the household; but for all intents and purposes, T.J. is raising his own damn 13-year-old self.
Enter Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a metalhead who resides in an ominous black van and does whatever the hell he pleases. Hesher is the definition of rebellion and anarchy, and a mother’s worst nightmare. Hesher habitually guzzles Pabst Blue Ribbon and smokes (cigarettes and marijuana); eats like a Neanderthal, stabbing his dinner with a knife and tossing peanut shells with reckless abandon; shimmies up telephone poles in his tighty-whiteys; has a penchant for blowing shit up and setting things on fire; mumbles and growls, instead of speaking; stomps, rather than walking; remains shirtless for the majority of the film, showcasing his crude DIY tattoos; and prefers Metallica during the Cliff Burton years (Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets). Hesher is like a one-testicled super-[anti]hero, impervious to pain and able to bounce back like Gumby after a hard fall or a good old kick in the balls (that must be when having only one testicle comes in handy). He also seems to be able to vanish into thin air, or appear out of nowhere. (Hesher lurks outside of T.J.’s English class just as the teacher asks about the meaning of a character’s dream — which seems like it might be a clue as to who — or what — Hesher really is…)
After T.J. accidentally blows (technically: shatters) the cover of Hesher’s squat, Hesher moves into the garage of T.J.’s house and promptly assumes the role of the master of puppets, taking full control of T.J., Paul and grandma’s lives. For better or worse (mostly worse), Hesher forces T.J. to contend with a pesky school bully (Brendan Hill) as well as T.J.’s first crush, a homely grocery store clerk, Nicole (Natalie Portman).
Writer-director Spencer Susser’s Hesher presents violence (mostly against property) as the only solution to dealing with grief. The world has beaten T.J. into submission and Hesher has arrived to unleash T.J.’s inner fury. You might even say that Hesher personifies T.J.’s raging ID. Hesher also seems to have a profound motivational affect on Paul and grandma too.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is nothing short of amazing as Hesher — if you want one good reason to watch Hesher, it is Hesher. Devin Brochu handles the character of T.J. very nicely, refraining from being too cutesy or infantile. Rainn Wilson goes completely against his traditional character type with the role of Paul — and the risk really pays off, but he is shamefully underutilized. And then there is Natalie Portman… Yes, I love her, but she seems to be terribly miscast as Nicole (despite the ugly glasses and frumpy wardrobe, she is still too sexy for this role); she does a commendable job nonetheless.
Despite its unapologetic propensity for violence and mayhem, I like Hesher a lot…well…until the third act. I am not quite sure why Susser decides to redirect Hesher towards an overly sentimentalized conclusion filled with rainbows and unicorns and lollipops — okay, that is obviously an exaggeration, but it really seems to be almost that extreme of a change in heart and tone to me. Then again, I guess I should give Susser some credit for taking Hesher someplace that I never expected.