Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes a break from being the clean-cut badass we’ve seen before. Now he’s a different kind of badass.

For entirely too much of the running time of Hesher, I believed the titular character was a figment of TJ (Devin Brochu, a good child actor)’s imagination. The film did not seem to want to commit to the reality of the character and his inexplicable habit of just showing up wherever and the casual disregard for him shown by the adults in the movie. That was immediately interesting and definitely intentional as it allowed me to understand what this movie is trying to do satirically as well as where its heart really lies.

And it’s got a lot of heart. This is a movie about an angry kid dealing with the death of his mother. He is irrational and getting worse, fixated on the car she died in as some sort of connective tissue with her. Meanwhile, his dad Paul(Rainn Wilson, showing impressive goddamn range yet again) lays around all day unable to cope with life without his wife. He can’t relate to TJ at all, making the kid even more isolated.

A total chance encounter leads to his meeting Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is a vagabond metalhead with a serious, serious “fuck the world” streak. Hesher is walking, talking chaos. At first, he seems vaguely sinister with his casual violence, obscenities, and the way he always seems to pop up in the periphery of TJ’s experiences (add to that my conviction, early on, that he wasn’t “real” in the context of the film). Later, Hesher forges actual relationships with TJ, his grandma (Piper Laurie, who is subtle and great as the emotional counterweight to all the loss and grief around her), and even some bizarre sub-vocal understanding with his dad.

Hesher is inexplicable. Probably a misanthrope but capable of empathy, he doesn’t give anything away. He’s a very interesting figure and the movie pretty well hinges on having him not betray that.

The movie is as much about Hesher as a character as it is about TJ dealing with his grief. The key to Hesher’s humanization is in his relationship with TJ’s grandma. Somewhere amidst his lurid, profane stories and language is a pretty solid sense of respect and tenderness toward “the old lady”. After TJ attracts him, it’s probably as much his Grandma that keeps Hesher around. She is so out of sorts and utterly kind that having Hesher stay in her house is something that is just accepted. It doesn’t seem to make much sense at first that there’s no outcry over this scuzzy guy insinuating himself into these peoples’ lives but it’s kind of one of those things. None of these people are in control of their lives and it causes them to feel and act lost. Hesher is different, he embraces the confusion and lack of control by behaving on a primal level nearly all the time. No urge goes unfulfilled. He’s a force of nature.

What makes this interesting is that the movie is a basically a satirical deconstruction of that subgenre of feel-good dramas where a “mysterious stranger” encounters a group of “lost souls” and presents a radical change of perspective that magically fixes everything after a few speeches, some end of second act adversity, and a big reconciliation. Hesher contains all these elements, which are also employed by many comedies (I Love You Man being a great recent example), and it actually ends up being kind of a feel-good drama in that vein. However, the way it gets there is what matters. It avoids the extreme sentimentalism and emotional manipulation in favor of irreverence and a fairly dark honesty about loss and resentment and the realities of life. Even Hesher’s speeches, especially his big finale speech, ditch the on-message histrionics for the most outrageous ways of saying “hey, you lost something but appreciate what you still have” that you’re ever likely to hear.

Also present in this deconstruction is the use of Natalie Portman’s character, Nicole. The actress was used in the marketing to make it seem like she has a larger role than she does. She’s a very billable name these days so it isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that Nicole is, like TJ and his dad, a bit of a lost soul. When you first see her, you can almost hear some mechanism click into place where you’re like “okay, now comes the quirky but lovable female character who will adjust our protagonists’ perspective and ultimately redeem them”. Portman knows about this expectation and riffs just enough of her Garden State character (who, while winning my heart forever, provided exactly that service in that movie) to emphasize the expectation. That Nicole winds up as not a redeemer but one in need of redeeming is the kind of clever convention-bending that is at the core of Hesher.

Nicole is an object of immense interest for TJ, becoming a surrogate mother and also the focus of adolescent interest in females.

TJ is a fairly beleaguered kid. Not only does he have his grief, there’s also his dad’s total breakdown and his escalating confrontations with a ridiculous-haired bully (Brendan Hill). On top of that is Hesher who is like TJ’s Tyler Durden, always prompting him or involving him in some new dangerous and chaotic act. What we learn is that these acts have a function, they provide an outlet for TJ’s rage and grief and it seems like Hesher instinctively knows this, or perhaps has some trauma in his own past. Either way, if you’re expecting some moment where it all just gels for TJ and he actually starts to loosen up and enjoy Hesher’s strange company, you shouldn’t. That moment basically never comes, which adds to the honesty of TJ’s emotional journey. These things he has gone through are not going to change him immediately. It’s about baby-steps, a  couple of which we get to see.

In spite of Hesher’s peripheral influence on TJ’s life, which sometimes spikes into intrusion, in the end they become clearly defined from each other in  way that leaves it clear that Hesher is a real character, just a completely outside-the-lines one. That the movie doesn’t take measures to explain him or justify him is a bold and wise move, keeping his inexplicable essence completely intact. Of course, he wouldn’t be a fully-realized character if he didn’t have an arc but it’s far more subtle than TJ’s or his dad’s and showcases some really subtle, brilliant acting for Gordon-Levitt (this shouldn’t really surprise anyone at this point, though). That final scene where he shows up for the funeral is the apex of that arc, but it’s the look on his face as he pushes that coffin down the street that completes the character.

Sometimes TJ is a pretty fucking intense kid. Moppet-like Devin Brochu somehow completely captures that. He wins breakout child actor of the year maybe.

Hesher is a pretty heavy drama balanced by a rawness that borders on the dangerous. It is not a safe movie even when it’s heart-warming or cathartic. It will remind you of a formula you’ve seen before, the very one I talked about earlier, but it is the bootleg underground copy of that formula. A collection of scratches, stark lines, asymmetry, and unfiltered emotional chaos much like the soundtrack of Hesher’s chaotic, epic existence.

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