Directed by: Spencer Susser
Written by: Spencer Susser & David Michôd.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Hesher), Devin Brochu (T.J.), Rainn Wilson (Paul Forney), Piper Laurie (Grandma), Natalie Portman (Nicole), Brendan Hill (Dustin), John Carroll Lynch (Larry).
By now, I think I have seen too many indie movies about dysfunctional families. They come along like clockwork every year, having created “buzz” at Sundance, and then dropped into the marketplace where some succeed, but most fail and are forgotten. They follow formulaic scripts as much as the blockbusters do, but on a smaller scale. Some of these films, much like some blockbusters, are actually still quite good. Spencer Susser’s Hesher, I think, is an attempt to subvert the genre by adding in the title character, who really has no business being in this movie, to try and make it darker or edgier. Instead, he just shows off how clichéd the rest of the movie is, and makes us wonder what the hell he’s doing in the movie.
T. J. (Devin Brochu) is a messed up little boy, who looks like he’s about 10, but is probably more like 13, since he’s clearly in high school. As if being the one kid in class who needs to fully hit puberty isn’t bad enough, his mother has recently died in a car accident. His father Paul (Rainn Wilson) is zonked out on pills, in a deep depression and simply sits around the house all day. His grandmother (Piper Laurie) cares about her son, and her grandson, but isn’t really much help.
TJ meets Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) when in a fit of rage; he smashes a window of a house on a construction site – the very house that Hesher is crashing in - bringing the security guard, and ruining Hesher’s living situation. Then Hesher starts following him around, and eventually, will just move in with the family. Why Paul and Grandma do nothing is never really explained. Hesher is some sort of heavy metal reject, seemingly out of the 1980s, with long, greasy hair, lots of tattoos (on his back, a giant middle finger, on his chest, a stick figure blowing his brains out) and he drives around in a big, black, old van. He moves in with the family, I guess, because he has nowhere else to go, and they don’t kick him out. Where he came from, where his family is, whether he has any friends, is never explained. But given the way he acts, it’s would not be surprising if he has driven everyone in his life away from him. Hesher is, in short, an asshole.
The movie is about T.J.’s journey, and how with the help of Hesher, he starts to heal himself and move on from his mother’s death – and how he brings Paul along with him. So the journey is clichéd, and I think that’s why co-writer/director Spencer Susser drops Hesher right into the middle of it – because we’ve seen this type of movie before, where a child is healed by his relationship by an outsider, but never before has the outsider been like Hesher. Normally, it’s some kindly, understanding older character, not someone who seemingly acts in his own self interest at every step along the way like Hesher does. Hesher does what he wants, when he wants, and really, never helps TJ at all. He lets the bully continue to pick on him, he drive a wedge between TJ and the object of his unrealistic, adolescent boy crush on Nicole (Natalie Portman), who works in a grocery store. He smokes, drinks, does drugs and swears at will in front of TJ. If the lesson to be learned from Hesher, the movie, is to be more like Hesher, the character, then I’m not buying it. He is, as I mentioned before, an asshole.
But perhaps the movie still could have worked if they had made Hesher into a convincing and entertaining asshole – which they don’t. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of my favorite actors working right now, but even he cannot make Hesher seem like he belongs in this movie – belongs in fact in the human race. Hesher is a shallow, superficial character, and it’s like Susser thought that the tattoos, hair and profanity would distract us from that shallowness It doesn’t. It doesn’t help that the rest of the characters are just as paper thin. Rainn Wilson is a talented actor, but he can’t make looking at the TV in a daze interesting. And Piper Laurie cannot make the spaced grandma convincing either. Natalie Portman, who saw so much to like in Hesher, she also produced it, has a one note role, and I could never figure out why she does pretty much anything that she does. Little Devin Brochu fairs the best with TJ, but that’s probably just because he’s the only character who seems to have been fully thought out.
Watching Hesher, I kept waiting for the pieces to fall into place. It is a diverting movie, and for a while, I went with it, thinking there was something more to it than what I was seeing – that the filmmakers were building to something. But they never really do. What we end up with is a clichéd movie with some clever moments, that adds up to pretty much nothing.