When I was a kid, the family would routinely pile into the car for a trip up to Northeast Philly to visit my grandparents. While that drive really only took an hour, at most, it felt like an eternity to my childish impatience. And unlike modern-day-Seth, who is all quiet and calm reserve, young-child-Seth was an annoying asshole who would spend that whole car trip beating up on my sister and bugging the ever-living-shit out of my parents. To put the kibosh on all that monkey business and get themselves some peaceful car time, my folks would buy me those little invisible ink travel books. And although I often knew what the deal was shortly after putting that stupid invisible rub stick to a given page, I was engrossed by the process. I generally knew how things were going to turn out, but I dug the shit out of getting there and, before you knew it, we were in the Northeast and I was moments away from listening to my grandmother’s latest rants about the local Russians.
If you haven’t seen where I’m going with all this, Hesher is like my racist grandmother. (*Uhm … no, that’s not right*)
Hesher is like those invisible ink puzzle pads. (*Better*) Pretty early on, you can see exactly where the story is going. We’re introduced to T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu) who lives at home with his father Paul (Rainn Wilson) and grandmother (Piper Laurie). This trio is coping with the recent death of T.J.’s mother, although the term “coping” has to be used ever-so-loosely when it comes to Paul, whose grown a movie blogger-like beard and basically checked out. One afternoon, T.J. runs across a … well, what the fuck do you call Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)? I guess he’s like a modern-day anarchistic nomad. Looking like the lead singer of a shitty slash metal band (although even those guys have better ink than Hesher’s homemade tats), Hesher winds up storming into the Forney home and taking up residence. Hesher and T.J. embark on a weird mentorship/friendship which impacts the other things going on in T.J.’s life, like his schoolboy crush on Nicole (Natalie Portman), a local grocery store checkout girl, and his ongoing battles with a bastard of a bully.
You can probably script out most of the plot from here, but like those invisible ink books, the fun of watching Hesher isn’t about seeing what comes after A, B, and C, but how the film gets to D, E and F. And it works, primarily, because the acting is absolutely top-notch. Rainn Wilson is almost singularly identified with Dwight and absurdist comedy, so it’s easy to forget that he’s got some drama in his background, particularly his stint on “Six Feet Under.” But this is easily the best dramatic performance Wilson has ever given — while characters full of sorrow and pathos are often played with a somewhat cold and disconnected undertone, Wilson’s Paul has this subtle undercurrent of warmth that makes his pain all the more heartbreaking. And Portman, too, takes a turn for the subtle, playing a slightly frumpy and almost nondescript, middle-class checkout girl in a role that might convince or remind some of her Black Swan haters that she actually is a good actress.
But Hesher really belongs to JGL and Brochu. Gordon-Levitt absolutely embodies the titular character in a role unlike anything we’ve seen him do before. The Hesher character is in this weird space where he could easily fall into becoming a melodramatic metaphor or an insanely over-the-top and drawn out deus ex machina, but JGL manages to balance Hesher’s sardonic anarchy and anger in a way that makes him this blackly comedic and almost tragic portrait of the wild guardian many of us wished we had when we were young kids going through troubled times. And Brochu, who is tasked with the even more difficult role of playing that young, troubled kid, matches Gordon-Levitt’s performance throughout the film. His T.J. hit particularly close to home for me — when I lost my mother at a young age, I went through my own path of similarly unrefined anger and sorrow, albeit to way less extremes — but one needn’t have that connection to appreciate Brochu’s performance. His troubled teen is the heart of the film, which could have fallen apart with a poor casting choice that would have left Gordon-Levitt’s performance overshadowing the role of T.J. But they hit gold casting Brochu.
For his first feature length film, writer/director Spencer Susser has really delivered an interesting product. Although the plot and story leave a bit to be desired in terms of the overall predictability, it’s still a moving and mostly effective story. But as a director, Susser shows a solid ability to mix the comedic and tragic undertones of the film in a way that, despite the utter lack of realism to the Hesher character, imbues the film with a naturalness that helps the story hit home. And, of course, the excellent performances we get to see in the film really only come about because of the characters that Susser created. While you can almost always see where Hesher is going from one plot beat to the next, much like those invisible ink books, you just don’t care, because … fuck it. If Hesher were a real person, he would hunt me down and beat the shit out of me for this awful invisible ink metaphor, so I’m not even going to try to tie it together. Later, dude.
Hesher screened at South By Southwest 2011.