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Review: “Hesher”

Directed by: Spencer Susser
Produced by: Natalie Portman, Spencer Susser, Morgan Susser, Lucy Cooper, Johnny Lin, Scott Prisand, Win Sheridan
Written by: Spencer Susser & David Michôd (screenplay), Brian Charles Frank (story)
Starring: Joseph  Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Rainn Wilson, Natalie Portman, Piper Laurie
Music by: Francois Tetaz, Metallica & Motorhead (incidental music)
Year: 2010 (Sundance), 2011 (wide)

 

I’m going to admit to something: I really don’t know what this movie was going for. It’s as conflicted as its titular character is, and that’s not really a compliment. I admit that I went into Hesher not really knowing what to expect. I knew there was going to be a dark sense of humor throughout undercutting a surprising amount of drama, but what I didn’t expect was the strange, almost pointless reason for its being – again, kind of like Hesher himself.

The performances are fine, don’t get me wrong. Joseph Gordon-Levitt disappears into the role of the simply named Hesher, who’s a sort of Zen metalhead with a penchant for destruction and pyrotechnics and a soft spot for sweet old ladies. One day, he just appears in the life of T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu). T.J. is your typical picked-on kid who has just lost his mother in a car accident.

Notice that I don’t use the word friend here? That’s because Hesher and T.J. never really become friends. They’re thrown together and T.J. really doesn’t have a choice in their relationship. Hesher pretty much forces his company upon the boy and his chronically depressed father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), who’s too paralyzed in his own grief to do much of anything about the long-haired, tattooed bad influence who has effectively moved into their house. The one person Hesher ever really forms a relatively believable and well developed bond with is T.J.’s sweet-natured grandmother Madeleine (Piper Laurie).

Hesher pretty much becomes the boy’s, and to a lesser extent even his father’s, unwanted, abusive guardian and role model — if that makes any sense. Hesher’s reaction to T.J.’s bully is to walk away from the scene and enact a severe form of passive aggressive retaliation on the begrudging T.J.’s behalf. Before long, though, T.J. begins following the headbanger’s bad example, even going so far as threatening bodily mutilation on his bully and thrashing his belongings and cussing out his father when he can’t have his way. If you can’t tell, the message about the importance of family gets a bit muddied by the end of the film, perhaps intentionally, but not exactly effectively.

As with Gordon-Levitt, Rainn Wilson, Devin Brochu, and Piper Laurie also do the most with what they are given by this film — Wilson in particular is a surprise, playing a sad, depressing character that’s far removed from the typical roles that all try to capture the outlandish weirdness of Dwight from The Office. Brochu, in from what I can tell is his first major starring role in pretty much anything, is likely to start popping up in more mainstream movies soon as most talented child actors tend to do when they take a part in a movie like this. The grief counselling scene he has with Rainn Wilson is possibly the most realistic and honest part in the film. Grief counselling rarely feels so grief-filled on screen as it does here, and Wilson and Brochu and the other actors around them really show how much better this movie could be.

As I said earlier, the unlikely bond (but really completely likely one, given the premise of the film) that forms between Hesher and the grandmother is a brief highlight of the film. Most of this happens off screen, as the film mostly unsatisfactorily follows T.J. in his efforts to woo a much older checkout girl (Natalie Portman) and earn enough money to buy back the wrecked car his mother died in (a morbid keepsake of a dead loved one if there ever was one), but the scene at the dinner table, where Hesher attempts to get her mind off of the family troubles, gives us a brief glimpse of tenderness from the otherwise emotionally pent up and quite undeveloped character.

The sweetness is then humorously undercut with the humor of Hesher, casually swearing and baring the vulgar tattoos on his back and chest, teaches this sweet old lady how to more safely use her medicinal marijuana in a bong. It surprisingly never becomes schmaltzy, and three-time Academy Award-nominee Laurie gives the character of Madeleine an enduring serene quality that, given the circumstances, maybe really could only come from smoking a few (not that I’d really know that).

But that’s about it as far as Hesher’s development goes. He kind of just drops in on the family, like Fonzie on the Cunninghams — had Fonzie been an unlikable metalhead instead of an arrogant greaser — teaching the family how to be “cool” like him and helping them deal with their troubles in the process. That would , I guess, make T.J. his Richie, or maybe, more appropriately, the father is Richie and T.J. is his Chachi, with the girl, Natalie Portman, playing the least integral character of the film and serving as Joanie. I guess grandma would be Mrs. Cunningham… Or whatever. I don’t really know where I was going with that and never really watched much of Happy Days, to be honest…

Then again, Hesher, directed by first timer Spencer Susser, never really finds its way with what it wants to say, either, and I really can’t feel bad about that, then. I suspect Susser may have had a lot of good ideas that he wanted to get out there, but just couldn’t really find the time to fit them into a film that’s mercifully shorter than two hours.

Again, it’s not really a badly acted film. More like just haphazardly laid out — a rough sketch of good ideas for a more interesting movie. It doesn’t know whether it wants to be a comedy, a melodrama, or even really say anything significant about anything, but it’s annoyingly content with that, and I just couldn’t really get a firm grip on whether I liked the film or not. I guess you could give it a try. I had heard good things about the film and came out disappointed. Maybe, having read this, you’ll lower your expectations and enjoy it more.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2 / 5

  1. CJ Stewart
    December 1, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Stupid image formatting is still screwed up. Awaiting a response from WordPress support…

  1. January 5, 2012 at 2:54 am
  2. January 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm

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