Oh, the joys of reviewing a film you would only recommend to a select few. Shall I lead with who those few are, or aren’t? Those who like a good Indie-flick where you have to work as much to define the narrative and characters as the skilled actors do. And fans of Joseph Gordon-Levitt will not be dissuaded from seeing Spencer Susser’s Hesher, though some should consider the incredible vulgarity the anarchistic Hesher spews. To say he is obscene is a profound understatement—I am not being modest here.
Fans of Joseph Gordon-Levitt will not be disappointed by this versatile actor who is riveting as Hesher. His character is a bit of a Coyote figure. He comes from nowhere and enters T.J.’s life like a communicable disease. He is unpredictable, plays a bit of a trickster, injects an unexpected sense of rationale occasionally, and spares the odd moment for tenderness. The other characters are inexplicably drawn to him; as are audience members—such is Gordon-Levitt’s ability—to create a character this obscene and yet hold their attention. Or is that he is just some horror so fantastic we just can’t look away.
T.J. (Devin Brochu) mistakenly reveals Hesher to a housing development’s security, thus leaving the mysterious transient without a roof. So Hesher moves into the emptiness of T.J.’s home without invitation. He not only moves into T.J.’s home, but takes to following the boy. When not standing by, he carries out the socially unacceptable response to T.J.’s problems. At first I thought he was an imaginary character, a T.J. as Max and Hesher as a monster escapee from the island scenario. But he isn’t
The stellar casting of Gordon-Levitt and Brochu continues with Rainn Wilson as Paul Forney (T.J.’s father) and Piper Laurie as Madeleine/Grandmother (Paul’s mother). Paul and T.J. are grieving for a wife and mother. Paul has retreated into a depression and the grandmother does her best to nurture her son and grandson, but neither adult seem to be of much help to T.J. who is oft left to his own devices and thus vulnerable to a bully at school. As Peter Travers in Rolling Stone notes, “Wilson makes Dad’s emergence a subtle marvel.” Paul rises to consciousness in a comic and tragic way that slowly unfolds as life and feeling begin to return to the household.
The wonderful Natalie Portman rounds out the cast as Nicole, a grocery check-out clerk who also unexpectedly enters into T.J.’s life and remains as a young boy’s crush. She is the character who is determined to live and love despite the struggles of (financial) survival that living by the rules/expectations provide. Nicole’s attempts usually come with a vocalized explanation, a reason why she had to try, and with an understanding that there could be failure. In a way that isn’t only visual, she is a yin to Hesher’s yang, two halves that understand each other.
Hesher insinuates himself into the Forney household, finding a gentleness with the grandmother without surrendering his foul mouth at the door. But the dad takes increasing notice of him, especially as T.J., after a spree of vandalism with Hesher, begins to mimic Hesher’s irreverence and rage. T.J. begins to fight for himself and while it is fear-inducing, I think it also a somewhat cathartic experience. The film escalates into a tumult (yes, there is even rain) and the coming down works to collect the pieces of a nightmare waking. The dad becomes more relevant and Hesher less so, and T.J. has a “goodbye” moment with his mother and the past. But then Hesher must return, because while he appeared out of nowhere at the beginning we need him to help provide a sense of closure? I mean, the family would have eventually found healing without him, right? Now Hesher’s needed presence and their subsequent actions need explaining.
It is a strange (and not completely believable) turn that Hesher would appear beholden to T.J. He claims it is because of the grandmother, but the sense of honor is fittingly unpredictable (?), the gifting at the end? The roof is funny, yes, but not enough to recover the Hesher Gordon-Levitt so brilliantly creates.
That the film paces a traditional narrative arc, whether we can comprehend the narrative or not, suggests some intention, some attempt to make a point. The profound realization may be as the tagline’s suggests, “Sometimes life gives you the finger and sometimes life gives you Hesher.” A story to make you feel better? I know you lost your wife and mother and the happy life you were living, but it could be worse… I know you hate the state of cultural norms, but it could be worse… Or is it closer to what the grandmother says, “Life is like walking the rain. You can hide and take cover or you can just get wet.”
Hesher didn’t seem to know how to end itself without something hokey, which is too bad; but it was consistent with the indecipherability and its vulgar metaphor. Hesher is obscene and when critics note a lack of definition to the roles and narrative in the film, they know what they are talking about. My above speculation is just that, speculation.
Hesher in the way it’s filmed isn’t inspiring enough to worry about, but the acting is. Ebert is true in his observation that “Rainn Wilson and Piper Laurie are good actors, and so for that matter is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and here we can see what good actors do with inexplicable situations and undefined characters. In a way, this is pure acting, generated from within, not supported by a narrative framework.” The “pure acting” is perhaps the real redeeming aspect of having sat through the film. Goodness knows the metaphors do not reveal anything new—except for maybe achieving new low. (Losing a family member is like losing a left nut?)
Directed by Spencer Susser
Produced by Natalie Portman, Spencer Susser, Morgan Susser, Lucy Cooper, Johnny Lin, Scott Prisand, Win Sheridan
Screenplay by Spencer Susser, David Michôd
Story by Brian Charles Frank
Starring : Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rainn Wilson, Natalie Portman, Devin Brochu, and Piper Laurie
Music by Francois Tetaz
Cinematography Morgan Susser
Editing by Michael McCusker, Spencer Susser
Running time: 100 minutes
Rated R for extreme profanity, violence, and sexual situations.