For a kid coping with the death of his mother, the depression it has caused his father, and the torment by a bully at school, Jesus, or some secular form of savior, unexpectedly comes in the form of Hesher. Hesher is a life-changer—but things can only get worse (and weird) for the kid before they get better. And in a way, perhaps Hesher’s life changes too.
If you look up what the term “hesher” means on Urban Dictionary, the general consensus of its definition is ‘a long-haired heavy metal-loving stoner.’ So it’s no wonder why the main character of Spencer Susser’s film is so-named. However, not much is known about Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) when he first appears inside an abandoned hideout where a child named TJ (Devin Brochu) smashes a window. Hesher gets violent, but then he randomly appears non-threateningly at TJ’s school and other places where he’s present. Then one day, he just decides to move himself in with TJ, his prescription drug-addicted father Paul (Rainn Wilson), and his sweet but increasingly frail grandma Madeleine (Piper Laurie). Hesher’s oddness comes out in full-force: He lays around the house only in briefs, showcasing his homemade stick figure and middle finger tattoos, smoking cigarettes and weed, watching pornography, and making inappropriate jokes around the family. Meanwhile, TJ develops a friendship with and a schoolboy crush on a cute grocery store clerk named Nicole (Natalie Portman), who has problems of her own with finances. With Hesher around and bringing him into his mischief, TJ’s problems with both his non-peers and peers become even larger.
Hesher is a film that pushes boundaries—content-wise, mentally, and emotionally. With its extremely crude and generally unlikable titular character having a seemingly negative influence on an already messed-up child and his family, it’s the type of movie that could turn off more conservative audiences. Hesher isn’t someone that even a typical adult should be hanging out with, never mind a vulnerable young boy. Their complicated relationship is out of left field, and the story of this mysteriously outlandish man suddenly living with people he barely knows is one that would never happen in real life. But that’s the beauty of movies, and underneath the unannounced explosions, hypersexual banter, and intensely angry behavior (All mostly exhibited by Hesher), there is an unexpected beauty and poignancy to this deeply dark indie film. There are lessons in friendship, family, life, death, and life after death amidst all the chaos. Although Hesher is an undesirable and unruly person on the surface, it’s admirable that in his own twisted way, he’s always there for TJ, even though he clearly doesn’t want him there. And although TJ and Paul go through even more darkness in Hesher’s presence, it’s Hesher’s drunken streetsmart wisdom that ultimately makes them see the light.
While the expletive-laden script is a strong point (The dialogue really drives this movie through), even stronger are the dynamic performances by the cast. The young Brochu as TJ is outstanding, incredibly mature, and one of the best portrayals in the past few years by a child star. He breaks hearts as he attempts to come to terms with his mother’s death (He goes so far as to trying to buy back the car she died in), and is startling when anger and revenge gets the worst of him. Wilson’s dramatic turn as the grieving husband and a struggling father will also stir some sad emotions. For her best post-Black Swan performance so far, Portman is sadly underused. She walks the line of dramedy here, playing the geeky and awkward girl, but also unleashing that character’s hidden struggles and sharing them with a friend in the form of TJ, and fanning an unconventional but mostly innocent affection between them. Of course, as Hesher, it’s Gordon-Levitt who provides the extremes in dramedy, but especially in the “edy.” As disturbing as he is, there is no option to stifle laughs when he’s on screen. This amazingly complex character and portrayal gives Gordon-Levitt a unique role to add in his diverse body of work.
It’s one effed-up, gritty, and comical drama that isn’t at all perfect, but it presents a very new way of how people deal with the things that life throws at them. Luckily, when life throws a Hesher, it only exists in fiction for all of us to be shocked, entertained, and enlightened.