The Film: Hesher

The Principals: Director: Spencer Susser Starring: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Pier Laurie, some snot-nosed punk

The Premise: TJ (snot-nosed punk) and his father (Rainn Wilson) are reeling from the recent death of their mother/wife. Dad is in a near catatonic, pill popping state, and son is spending his days riding his bike, getting beat-up by a bully and trying for some reason to get the trashed car that his mom died in out of impound. The only rays of light in TJ’s miserable pre adolescent existence is his spacey grandmother (Laurie) and the crush he harbors on the local check-out girl (Natalie Portman) whom he befriends. Into their lives comes Hesher (Levitt), a metalhead burnout who TJ finds squatting in a housing development. When TJ inadvertently screws up Hesher’s living arrangement, Hesher moves into TJ’s house uninvited. Complications ensue, and everyone learns lessons on life, love and healing.

Is It Good: It’s a mixed bag. It’s hard to find fault with Hesher on a technical level. For an indie the film looks great, and the performances are strong across the board, but we’ll get to that later. Unfortunately, Hesher proves the rule that low budget indie films can be just as formulaic as big budget blockbusters. That’s not to say that it’s a bad movie; it’s not. But there wasn’t any plot development I didn’t see coming a mile away and that hadn’t already been done in a better film. It’s basically Bad Santa by way of a more serious coming-of-age story, which results in a predictable movie that doesn’t know what it really wants to be.

The other main problem is the casting of the snot-nosed punk. He is played by Devin Brochu, and the problem isn’t so much with Brochu’s acting but rather his presence. TJ as written is obviously meant to be the audience identification character and we see the story through his eyes. But Brochu has, as I have illustrated, a snot-nosed presence that no amount of acting can compensate for. It’s in his face and his delivery; he’d have been better in the bully role. I just couldn’t sympathize with him, which is a real problem since he’s in nearly every frame of the film. In the long stretches when we are following him solo (almost always riding his stupid bike which he falls off of several times) I felt myself checking out.

Thankfully the film really compensates for this in the other performances. Levitt is as good as you want him to be as the foul-mouthed, drugged out Hesher, and he’s really the driving force of the film whenever he’s onscreen. Piper Laurie is great as well, though I felt her role was of the typical “spacey but loveable old lady” variety that we’ve seen before; Laurie deserves better. Portman is good but you do find yourself wondering why she took this role; it’s pretty minor for someone of her star-wattage. But good on her for supporting small cinema. The real surprise here is Rainn Wilson, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has seen James Gunn’s recent indie flick Super. Wilson is an actor who knows how to play suffering; he manages to convey great pain without slipping into maudlin territory. It’s something you wouldn’t know he could do based on the Dwight Shrute character he plays in The Office, or any of his more mainstream comedic roles. The dude has range, and he wields it here to good effect.

In the end, your mileage is going to vary. I hate to be wishy-washy like that, but it’s sort of where my feelings land on this. There are some really funny moments here, and Levitt gets some great non-sequitir monologues where he tries to impart wisdom with some profanity laden sexually explicit story. You know, like Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. There are moments of entertainment to be had throughout, but it’s all building to the emotionally charged catharsis that you see coming from the first frame. If you are a big fan of indie dramedies, you’re going to find stuff to like here, but if you’re looking for a surprising and unique snowflake of a film, look elsewhere.

Random Anecdotes: I know a guy on Facebook that had something to do with this movie, but then became “no longer involved”. That’s all I know. He still recommended it though.

Cinematic Soulmates: Bad Santa, Indie Coming-of-Age movies 101.