Sunday, April 17, 2011
Directed by Spencer Susser
There's something particularly sweet about how bizarre a film like Hesher is. Think about this: here, we have a movie led by a character that speaks in so many non sequiturs that we eventually just get used to it, as if we're reading a novel by Anthony Burgess. Also, we meet a young man, our protagonist, who tries to pry off his enemy's toe with a pair of pliers. I mean, what does this all mean? Throughout its story, Hesher gives the audience a dumpster filled with dots and no way to connect them all. Yet, somehow, with the some wicked funny dialogue and a slew of touching performances, the film is able to rise far above its rough, transgressive appearance to become a wonderful, sometimes touching tale about grief.
TJ (Devin Brochu) is a young boy who lives at home with his depressed father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), and his sweet but senile grandmother, Madeleine (Piper Laurie). The family is still having trouble recovering emotionally from the death of Paul's wife - TJ's mother - two months earlier. Paul spends most of his day lying on the couch, vapidly watching the television. TJ often tries to speak to him, but Paul can barely mutter a response through his unkempt beard. When Paul decides to sell the old car in which TJ's mother died in, TJ is irate. He tries to go to the impound and get the car back, but all he gets is an unneeded rivalry with impound manager's bully son, Dustin (Brendan Hill).
Then TJ meets Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a scraggly-haired, heavy-metal-loving arsonist with a habit for bad language and a penchant for explosives. How does he meet him? When TJ throws a rock through the window of an abandoned building, Hesher storms out in anger for disrupting his home. TJ is able to escape this scary looking individual on their initial meeting, but it isn't long before Hesher shows up in TJ's house unsolicited, demanding to use the laundry room. Paul is too apathetic to care about this new unwelcome visitor and Madeleine is too out of it to even notice the difference. With that, Hesher makes himself at home with this self-loathing family, camping out in the living room to watch porn in his underwear. TJ seems to be the only person who objects to Hesher's presence, but when when he confronts the strange young man, Hesher usually responds to another question entirely or threatens violence in a very calm, collected tone.
At school, TJ still has to deal with Dustin and his cruel tactics (it is quite an accomplishment to stand out as the strangest character in a film like this, but this gel-haired, yellow teethed bully may take the cake). When Dustin attacks him in the parking lot of a grocery store, TJ is rescued by a cute, but frumpy check-out girl named Nicole (Natalie Portman). She gives him a ride home and TJ develops a crush on her, following her and watching her in the store. It's not long until Hesher notices this and begins to heckle TJ for it. Soon enough, Hesher begins to introduce himself in almost every aspect of TJ's life, as the greasy-haired metal head soon proves himself to be endearing, if still mysterious to both TJ and Madeleine. As it soon turns out, Hesher may end up being the very best thing that ever happened to this grief-ridden family.
There are times throughout Hesher where I felt out of sorts, trying desperately to understand what overarching metaphor director and co-writer Spencer Susser was trying to convey. It's not always clear what's being said here, but Susser, in some way, is able to keep this story humming despite all that. All of the characters are interesting, compelling people - each with their own arc, even if the story doesn't have one. At some point, I found myself caring less and less about mechanical screenwriting issues (as a film student, we're often taught to worry about those kind of things too much) and more and more about the people wandering across the screen. And what a troubled group of people we're given here. Even the settings in which they inhabit seem to be dead and molding.
Of course, this collection of misfits is brought to life by several fascinating performances. Both Rainn Wilson and Piper Laurie do terrific work, both representing the two opposite sides of mourning that TJ must face every day of his life. Laurie, in particular, gives one of her greatest performances in decades, perfectly encapsulating Madeleine as the true heart of the entire film. As Nicole, Natalie Portman is excellent as expected (in a role she apparently shot before her Oscar-winning work in Black Swan). It's a testament to her talent and commitment that she's always able to become such a wide array of characters, without distracting audiences with her starpower alone. That Portman plays Nicole with nerdy unattractiveness and is able to pull it off is quite the achievement.
But you cannot talk about Hesher without speaking about it's two lead performances. Namely, Gordon-Levitt is a revolution in this grungy, angst-ridden role. It's one of his most fully-realized performances, unlike anything he's ever done before. His ability to take this despicable individual and make him funny, watchable person may be the highest accolade of Gordon-Levitt's young, but promising career (in a quaint scene between Gordon-Levitt and Laurie - in which Hesher teaches Madeleine to smoke from a bong - you will see perfect execution in screen acting, with two talents perfectly conveying context and subtext simultaneously). As TJ, Devin Brochu may have been asked to do a little bit too much, yet this young man (how old is he? I can't seem to find it out and he seemed about two years younger than his character was supposed to be) is able to deliver a performance with so many emotional twists and turns that most professionals would not have been able to pull off. You never want to put too much enthusiasm into the acting of children, but Brochu's tour-de-force work is something to behold, for now and the future.
Hesher has spent over a year trapped in distribution hell. It has been doing the festival circuit and will finally get it's release in the coming weeks. Hard to believe that a film starring one of Hollywood's brightest up-and-comers (Gordon-Levitt) and a recent beloved Oscar-winner (Portman) would have so much trouble, but such is the case with a film that has this sort of subject matter. This is the first feature from Susser, and I'm interested in what we may see from him in the coming years. He's obviously unafraid to defy audience expectations and has a touch for working with talented performers. Sure, the film is uneven, but it's consistently uneven, to the point where that is what makes the film. It's a ballsy move. One that probably will not produce huge box office numbers, but will usually produce very interesting films if given the right talent.