Director: Spencer Susser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie, Devin Brochu, John Carroll Lynch
As the film industry has contracted, and the burden of financing shifted away from companies and more onto creative individuals themselves, American independent films of the past 10 years or so, whatever their genre, have been typically characterized by a certain eagerness to please. This isn’t entirely surprising. Like any other occupational venture in tougher economic times, there’s an element of self-preservation involved. Emergent filmmakers have a desire to keep working, and so they craft stories, consciously or subconsciously, that often play to the whetted appetites of a particular audience or demographic.
Spencer Susser’s feature directorial debut, “Hesher”, is not much concerned with such niceties. It’s not flat-out confrontational, per se, but it is warped, weird and given to neither easy explanation nor pat, sum-of-its-parts analysis. By various turns a shrewdly drawn coming-of-age drama and a full-tilt, gonzo exploration of the dirty, unfortunate reality that pain and disappointment visits everyone’s life, the movie cruises along solidly, for much of its running time, on the unlikely interplay of its two lead characters before finally losing its way a bit in the home stretch.
Distraught over the recent death of his mother, 13-year-old TJ (Devin Brochu, quite good) expends considerable effort trying to first save and then retrieve the automobile in which she died, to which he understandably attaches a sentimental value. He’s relentlessly bulled at school, and doesn’t fare much better in a haphazard run-in with a grungy drifter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). His only real friend seems to be Nicole (Natalie Portman), a fetching but frazzled twentysomething supermarket cashier who comes to his rescue when he’s about to be pummeled.
Things take a turn for the strange, however, when said drifter, announcing himself only as Hesher, shows up at TJ’s house, strips to his underwear, starts doing laundry, and otherwise makes himself at home. In a threateningly matter-of-fact fashion, Hesher explains to TJ that this is now his new crashpad, and TJ should explain his sudden presence only by saying that he’s a friend. Shocked and scared, TJ complies, and his terminally ill grandmother Madeleine (Piper Laurie) and sad-sack father Paul (Rainn Wilson) unblinkingly accept this bizarre explanation.
As Paul and TJ undergo occasional group counseling, to seemingly little benefit, Hesher insidiously works his way into the family dynamic, offering up strange (and often profane) advice. Hesher and TJ also cross paths with Nicole, and, much to TJ’s consternation, this begins to impact his relationship with his older crush. Things finally come to a head when Hesher’s violent tendencies get the best of him.
Save a heavy metal guitar riff that helps introduce Hesher, Susser’s film is staged in a manner that is more or less outwardly realistic. Yet no one explicitly questions Hesher’s move-in, or when they finally do, as is the case with TJ’s grandmother, they don’t attempt to force this seemingly sociopathic stranger out of their house. The degree to which “Hesher” relies on convenience and contrivance, then, will drive certain viewers to batty distraction, but the magnetic pull of its scene-to-scene construction and the strength of its performances for the most part keep these sorts of qualms at bay.
A colleague described “Hesher”, in less than flattering terms, as a knock-off of Chuck Palahniuk produced by people raised only on Sundance films, and that’s actually not a bad description, to whatever degree one is invested in or detested with the narrative. With his crudely drawn tattoos, stringy hair, facial scruff, penchant for elliptical aphorisms, and psychotic thousand-yard stare, Hesher comes across as a sort of punk-rock Jesus or G.G. Allin disciple — or perhaps a Beavis & Butt-head acolyte who’s stepped down out of their cartoon suburban world into a slightly more grounded but equally scummy American suburbia. He’s an outsized character, at once original and representational, and to the extent one objects to dollops of ambiguity and abstraction liberally applied to a narrative of coming-of-age and familial reconciliation, they will find molehills or not outright mountains of frustration in “Hesher”. Hesher is real, yes, but it’s also somewhat best to think of him as a construct or a forceful change agent rather than attempt to make sense of all of his behavior.
The film’s third act isn’t quite as tightly drawn as it should be; rather than pull back and swing for a knockout blow, Susser seems to lose his nerve. He aims for a pay-off more in line with traditional settled-grief catharsis, which doesn’t quite fully connect, the way it’s constructed. Neither does the intimation of a potential relationship between Nicole and Hesher make total sense. Reflecting back on this now, it’s hard to fully distill or explain these criticisms, except to simply say that, for me, the movie’s hold simply loosened considerably.
And yet, still, “Hesher” courses with a unique verve missing in many independent productions, hovering somewhere between outright success and “interesting failure.” An appreciation of feeling is what informs one’s affection for this movie, much more than a simple narrative engagement, and it taps into those raging, conflicted sensations of adolescence with considerable aplomb.
Brochu is captivating and fairly naturalistic as TJ. Gordon-Levitt, meanwhile, is an actor of considerable range, and it’s heartening to see that, even given his recent career upswing, he doesn’t shy away from playing characters with… darker tendencies, let’s say. In “Hesher”, he gives a sly, inventive performance marked by a savvy blend of antagonism and internalized hurt; however anti-social, his pathology flows from a place that seems to make sense, informed by his own code of preemptive aggression. Hesher isn’t the sort of guy you’d really ever want to meet in real life, but up on the movie screen he’s certainly a lot of fun to watch.
Written by: Brent Simon