105 min., rated R.
Grade: B +
"Hesher" is the alternately anarchic, gutsy, and heartbreakingly human indie dark comedy that James Gunn's "Super" wanted to be. Although the details are nothing alike, both are edgy independent films about antiheroes and both feature Rainn Wilson, whether it be top billing or not.
Joseph-Gordon Levitt plays the burnout sloth of the title, the id personified: a profane, misanthropic, half-dressed, straggly-haired, heavily tattooed metalhead-stoner who drives in a van and doesn't give a fuck. Inked across the chest is a stick figure shooting itself in the head and a giant middle finger on his back. Like a ray of sunshine that hasn't bathed in weeks, Hesher comes to the rescue for the Forney family. Bullied 13-year-old T.J. Forney (played by Devin Brochu) is lost, emotionally that is, after losing his mother in a car accident. He makes it his goal every day to get back the remains of the family car from the impound lot, despite what the unsympathetic owner (John Carroll Lynch) tells him. His depressed father Paul (Rainn Wilson) is practically dead already, sleeping all day and paralyzed with grief. T.J.'s fuzzy-headed grandmother Madeleine (Piper Laurie) doesn't know what else to do to comfort her son and grandson, plus she's going senile.
When T.J. throws a rock through the window of an under-construction house Hesher's been squatting in, the straggly-haired, tatted-up pyro begins popping up into the kid's life like a specter at opportune times (like when T.J. is getting beat up in the bathroom) but never defends him. Then after Hesher literally barges into Madeleine's house, neither she or Paul really notice their unexpected visitor, until Hesher rips off his clothes, sitting on the couch in his underwear watching porn. Later on, Hesher gets revenge by torching T.J.'s bully's car but leaving T.J. to be caught at the scene of the crime, or when Hesher breaks into someone's pool (claiming it to be his uncle's), throwing lawn furniture into it and setting the diving board aflame. In the presence of Grandma, Hesher tells T.J. to accompany his grandmother on her daily walks "so she doesn't get raped." Sharing life's gloom is Nicole (Natalie Portman), a luckless grocery store clerk who can't even afford a parking ticket. Hesher's unconventional influences just might rub off on these troubled souls and shake away their grief.
Directed by Spencer Susser, from a script by Susser and David Michod (who impressed in directing his feature debut, "Animal Kingdom"), "Hesher" explores loss and grief but has such a fun, weird spirit. The characters are interesting, flawed, and sympathetic, and the performances are soul-baring gems. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is hilariously crass, raw, uninhibited, fearless, and unpredictable, further proving he's such a versatile young actor that he doesn't have to be pigeonholed into playing a type. His Hesher is never grating or show-offy but is his most fiery performance, and that's not just because the character is a pyromaniac. Gordon-Levitt's having a high time with all the offensive behavior, but conveys Hesher's internal humanity with his eyes and even in his crude-joke versions of metaphorical, inspirational stories.
How Hesher is written is as an enigma of contraditions, as we have no idea where he came from. Is he an imaginary Tyler Durden for T.J.? No, because everyone sees him. Is he a guardian angel in Metallica form? Maybe, but Hesher isn't really the protagonist anyway. T.J. is, and Devin Brochu is astonishing. He's an unaffected child actor and this should be his ticket to get more work. Rainn Wilson plays the father pathetic and empathetic as you, too, can feel his pain. Piper Laurie is wonderfully loopy and touching as Grandmother, and she shares nice moments with Hesher, including one where she takes a hit from his bong. The role of Nicole is slimly developed, but Portman works her capable charms in frumpy mode.
It may sound like "Hesher" is trying too hard to shock and be weird and edgy, but it goes into dark places that are grimly funny without drowning in misery and moving without dripping of sentimentality. Under its hard shell, the film finally earns a touchy-feely climactic scene at a funeral that its characters deserve without feeling incongruous. A subplot involving stolen cash is forgotten about, but that's just a nit that doesn't have to be picked. "Hesher" easily could've been a bleak, unpleasant time, which many will still find it, but it's like a "heavy-metal 'Mary Poppins'" that's tough and poignant in all the right places.