Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Hesher
I’m going to skip the customary review foreplay this time around because life is short, the plate is full and frankly that’s how Hesher would do it in the film that bears his name. So, here it is: Spencer Susser’s directorial debut starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt does not quite hit its mark, but it is admirably ambitious and there is too much great about it to weigh it down with a lot of nitpicking. You should see it.
If you still need more cuddling, spooning and sweet nothings to be convinced, read on:
Set in some dusty, decaying suburban Los Angeles crap hole – it could be Reseda or it could be Long Beach or it could be anywhere in between and I think that’s kind of the point – Hesher revolves around a group of people dealing with assorted life issues ranging from the annoying to the life altering. There is school bully victim TJ (Devin Brochu), a boy who has recently lost his mother. There is TJ’s father Paul (Rainn Wilson), a man trapped in a somnambulant prescription fog as he copes with the loss of his wife. There is TJ’s grandmother Madeleine (Piper Laurie), a woman who bears the psychological scars of a life of loss herself but who seems mentally ill-equipped to be a crutch for her family in their time of need. Finally, there is Nicole (Natalie Portman), a flaky local grocery store clerk TJ encounters who simply seems to be having a bad couple of years as one shitty thing happens after another.
They’re a tentative and fragile support network keeping each other afloat but lacking the strength to rise up out of the mire. Into their midst, like an angry electric guitar chord, storms Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – shirtless, straggly-haired, tattooed, he’s a heavy metal force of nature; an anarchic expression of incoherent rage who latches on to TJ one day and comes home with him. At first he seems like a guardian, helping TJ with his little bully problem, but you can’t contain a nuclear reaction like Hesher for long. Soon things get out of hand until finally the world seems like it’s going to fall in. Of course sometimes in order to fix something, you have to break it completely and start over and maybe Hesher is just the man for the job.
There’s a question whether or not Hesher really exists. All evidence in the movie points toward him being for real, but he might be symbolic. He might just be a manifestation of the collective needs of this group of people; a source of protection, a literal articulation of their hurt and fear and anger, and the chaotic agent of their healing.
That rage Hesher represents by the way is one of the exhilarating things about the film. We’re allowed to be sad for a time when faced with a great loss, but the limit of people’s patience is finite and, even before that clock runs out, no one seems to understand the righteous, primal rage that comes with the abuse that life heaps upon you, especially when people you love start dying off. Hesher beautifully and thrillingly taps into that anger – especially the anger of a small child for whom platitudes and Godly plans mean nothing – in ways that most movies are never willing to go.
Along the way, Hesher is also occasionally belly-laugh funny. It’s funnier at times than most so-called comedies. So there’s that.
As for the cast, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is simply fantastic in the title role. He’s funny, crass, dangerous, unpredictable and he brings it all home with a fuck-it-all, fully committed attitude that almost single-handedly carries the entire film. Natalie Portman meanwhile is surprisingly believable as kind of an awkward, plain misfit who means well but just can’t seem to cross her t’s and dot her i’s. She’s likable even as she’s kind of pathetic. Rainn Wilson doesn’t have much to do, frankly, but it’s not his fault and it’s not really a problem. He spends most of the film in a borderline coma, though he comes to life in flashbacks and at the end. Piper Laurie’s character comes dangerously close to a cartoon of a well-intended, but out-of-it old lady whose solution to the world’s problems is making sandwiches, but Laurie brings a remarkable sweetness tainted by vulnerability and sadness that really humanizes Madeleine. She’s a great counterpoint to Gordon-Levitt and the two go a long way to making the whole thing work.
I think what ultimately trips Hesher up, is that director Susser asks way too much of young Devin Brochu and he doesn’t have the confidence or the experience to get a performance that might be more than a little kid can completely handle in the first place. Brochu is very good, but for the character to really work the actor would have to tap into a blackness and a hurt that (fortunately) remains beyond the grasp of most little kids. The movie really rests on Brochu’s shoulders and, while he’s fine on the surface, you never quite believe he’s feeling the emotions that are supposed to be tearing him up and the film falters a bit because of it.
Still, because it’s funny and raw and because it tackles difficult subjects with gusto when most films bring kid gloves with little Hello Kitties on them, Hesher is a winner. It’s exactly the kind of movie independent films should challenge themselves to be and that first time directors should aspire to. It’s also pretty goddamn entertaining. Anyway, if you’ve got a problem with it, I’ll send Hesher over to set fire to all of your shit. He’ll do it too. I’ve seen it.
Hesher. USA 2010 (release 2011). Directed by Spencer Susser. Written by David Michod and Spencer Susser. Cinematography by Morgan Pierre Susser. Edited by Michael McCusker. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie and John Carroll Lynch. 1 hour 40 minutes. MPAA rated R. 4 stars (out of 5)
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