Hesher – Review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the kind of Mary Poppins that sets things on fire.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

I tried counting how many movies I’ve seen a few years ago. I got to about 4,000 and got bored with it. As a film critic I suppose that’s pretty good, but there’s an enormous downside to it, in that you become so familiar with how these movies are constructed that responding to any of them on a purely emotional level – pleasure, pain, fear, love and so forth – becomes a difficult thing indeed. I took great pleasure in watching Hesher, Spencer Susser’s debut feature, because I it made me feel something special. It’s a rather ugly film, shot without flare and acted without glee. It’s about loss and misery… subjects that understandably make most of us uncomfortable. But I felt that discomfort. I could not reject it. Like the unexpected death of a loved one or the calamitous character of Hesher himself, this movie can’t be ignored. I kind of love it for that, even as I simultaneously hate it for making me write yet another boring, positive review. 2011 has thus far been a year full of unexpectedly strong releases, a fact that’s only likely to annoy jaded a-hole critics like myself, but I digress.

Hesher stars young Devin Brochu (In the Valley of Elah) as T.J., a kid who just lost his mother in a car accident. His father, played by a mopey-faced Rainn Wilson, has completely shut down mentally, physically and emotionally, and his well-meaning grandmother (Piper Laurie) just wants everyone to get better but has no idea how to make that happen. Enter Hesher, a bedraggled, tattooed drifter who plonks right down on T.J.’s couch, and threatens to beat the crap out of him. Not so much a source of malevolence as one of intimidation, Hesher ingratiates himself into T.J.’s life, screwing up just about every aspect of it. Usually, in movies at any rate, mysterious and magical strangers make the lives of mourning children better, offering a world of magic and promise to make up for their hardships. Hesher promises a world that’s harder than ever, and he doesn’t challenge T.J. to meet those hardships, although that’s exactly what T.J. has to do.

Hesher is a character, and the truly exceptional Joseph Gordon-Levitt may turn in his best performance to date here, but more than anything else he’s a force. A force for good on occasion, but mostly a force for abject destruction that T.J. has to learn to deal with on his own. Spencer Susser postulates that Hesher himself represents death itself, which cannot be debated or defeated. Hesher is such an intriguing creation that the metaphor works, but this isn’t a simple film that can be reduced to a single conceit. There are worthwhile observations to make about the narrative and the journey of its fine young protagonist (Devin Brochu is a real find), but what impressed me the most was Susser’s portrayal of people trying, failing and once in a blue moon even succeeding in conquering their own lives. 

Natalie Portman, who’s having one hell of a year, strikes the most memorable notes for me, personally, although I suspect I won’t be the only one who feels this way. She’s going through what people only just now seem to be recognizing as a typical quarter-life crisis, in which the dreams of youth come crashing headfirst into the practicalities of adulthood. She’s a beautiful girl who can only afford cheap glasses and barely ekes out a living at a supermarket, to whom even the slightest fenderbender is a life-altering event because damn it, she can’t afford to fix her car. She’s a deeply human figure, played beautifully, and like every character in Susser’s film – Hesher included – is treated with respect even as her life is systematically destroyed, and occasionally slightly uplifted, by bulls**t beyond her control. 

It’s that struggle that I responded to in Hesher: life gets you down (that’s what it does), and you have to deal with it. And everyone’s dealing with it in different, real, sometimes beautiful and often pathetic ways. I’ve been there. I’m confident that you’ve been there at some point. Hesher speaks to that universal life experience without judgment, but with sympathy and a fair amount of anger. That’s fair. That’s exceptional. It’s a powerful piece of cinema, and despite the heady subject matter even entertains thanks to a whirlwind performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who proves once again that he’s one of the most promising actors around.

I almost wish I hated it. Liking this many movies is starting to hurt my street cred. But as Hesher reminds us, getting something nice out of life is rare and special. I’m not going to piss it away because it’s inconveniently timed. 

Crave Online Rating: 8.5/10