Film Review By: Gordon K. Smith
The Natalie Portman movie of the month is Hesher, an abrasive if ultimately affecting comedy-drama which she also co-produced (one of 22 — you read that right — 22 co-producers, which tells you something about the state of modern indie film production).
It also seems to run the checklist of required indie film ingredients before finding a consistent tone — ugly language, repulsive characters, unpleasant treatment of children. Yes, indies are rightly hailed for running counter to big Hollywood studio conventions of predictable, demographically-approved characters, situations and happy endings, but they’ve also developed conventions of their own.
Portman has a supporting role as a supermarket cashier who befriends T.J., a troubled (is there another kind?) 12-year-old boy who lives with his depressed, jobless dad (Rainn Wilson) and lonely, slightly dotty grandmother (the great Piper Laurie, almost unrecognizable). The family’s dysfunction, we gradually come to learn, is a result of the mother’s death in a car accident (a late flashback to this is truly heart-wrenching). They’re in clear need of some kind of catharsis, and it arrives in the form of the title character (also a nickname for hard-core heavy-metalheads), a slacker/stoner that makes Jeff Bridges’ Big Lebowski look sophisticated by comparison.
It’s at first hard to tell if Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, looking sometimes like Jesus played by early John Carradine) is live or Memorex, some figment of T.J.’s damaged imagination. No one but him seems to notice Hesher hanging around his school, like a demon with an ever-present cigarette and flipped-bird tattoo (this turns out to be one of numerous lapses of logic). But when he simply shows up at T.J.’s house and makes himself at home, dad and Grandma see him too, but don’t ask much about the new unannounced boarder. So now we’re in deadpan black-comedy territory, but that tone shifts more serious by the midway point, where among other things we’re treated to such sights as a boy getting his nose slashed a la Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.
Devin Brochu, an unaffected child actor, strikes the right mix of confusion and sadness as T.J. The primary adult actors surounding him are largely performing against type, to good effect. Portman, in big peepers, goes anti-glam as Nicole, a harried minimum-wage worker who can’t pay her bills, and makes you believe she’d actually wind up in the sack with Hesher. It’s interesting, even startling, to see Wilson in total non-comedy mode, 180 degrees from his “Office” character. The big revelation is the always-watchable Gordon-Levitt in the title role, who finds some crude nobility in a character initially creepy and dislikable. Johnny Depp might have played this a dozen years ago, and G-L just might be closing in on his mastery of eccentrics.
Hesher is a promising feature debut for Spencer Susser, previously a director of shorts, commercials and “behind-the-scenes” featurettes, and he co-wrote it with David Michod (a long way from his Aussie gangster saga Animal Kingdom). The film is at its most affecting in the final act, especially in moments involving Laurie’s grandmother, who gets a lesson in bong-smoking from Hesher — yes, pot-smoking grannies, another eye-rolling cliche, but Laurie and Leavitt find a quiet grace that makes it work beautifully. Those are the moments in this uneven movie that stay with you.