‘Hesher’ (R) isn’t a movie for the easily offended. It’s also not a good pick if you like your dramas to be feel-good and fuzzy; the lead character here isn’t out to be a positive influence, but his effect on people around him is positive all the same.
Joseph-Gordon Levitt takes on the title role as a twenty-something metalhead with a penchant for cigarettes and tattoos who spends his days drinking, cursing, and setting random stuff on fire. He lives in a beat-up old van and doesn’t seem to have much to do besides be angry at the world.
One day, he meets T.J. (Devin Brochu), a ten-year-old boy grieving the death of his mother. Hesher also meets T.J.’s father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), and his grandmother, Madeleine (Piper Laurie), and soon moves himself into the family’s garage, uninvited. Despite his vulgarity, recklessness, and generally poor attitude, he becomes a sort of mentor to T.J. and helps the family to work through their grief.
Hesher, while seemingly no more than a force of chaos, is clearly designed to spur change in the characters around him and force them to change their way of looking at the world. It’s a big change from your typical stranger-helps-the-family drama where the central character is an angelic type with a warm and positive aura. And that’s where audiences might have trouble grasping the film.
First off, it’s hard to believe that a parent wouldn’t take issue with their young child befriending a greasy-haired, homeless, possibly mentally unstable pyromaniac, with a bucketload of rage issues, who lives in a van. In a comedy/drama script, it works, but it’s hard to make that stretch to real life. It’s also difficult to believe that the Forney family wouldn’t call the cops after Hesher moved himself in, uninvited, and brought all of his chaos with him. However, these two points are central to the entire movie, so you have to suspend disbelief a bit and just wait to see how Hesher’s character will clash with (and move) the other characters in the story.
It’s probably safe to say that there are few Hollywood actors who could pull off a character like Hesher for who he’s intended to be, and not as a cliché. Joseph Gordon-Levitt handles the task with ease, and in fact, he’s nearly unrecognizable from his usual clean-cut self. His performance here shows why he’s one of the best young actors of his generation.
He’s backed up by some great supporting performances, notably from Brochu, giving an especially mature delivery for such a young kid; and from Wilson, appearing a rare non-comic role. There’s no trace of Dwight Schrute here, just a depressed father who’s too sunken into his own grief to reach out to his son. Laurie is a nice touch as the kind, warm grandmother—the total opposite of Hesher—and Natalie Portman has a minor role as a sales clerk who becomes involved in the family drama. (Portman also worked as a producer on this film, for the film buffs who are interested.)
Overall, if you can put your assumptions on hold long enough to look past the vulgar bits and the only-in-a-movie plot devices, then you might find a great little indie drama with a message waiting to be found at the core.