PFF ’10: Hesher (Spencer Susser, USA)

Directed by: Spencer Susser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson

Coping with the tragic loss of a loved one is never easy. Then again, neither is returning home one day to find a tattooed, sociopathic loner sitting on your couch in nothing but his underwear. If this sounds strange, which it most definitely should, allow me to introduce you to Hesher: an incorrigible troublemaker that enjoys limitless bouts of pyromania as much as he does speed metal. Following a chance encounter with young T.J., of whom has recently suffered the loss of his mother, Hesher decides to shack up with the boy and his grieving father at their grandmother’s house. While the presence of such a frightening individual at first baffles all involved, his prolonged stay begins to inadvertently aid the family, T.J. especially, in ways they’d never thought possible thanks to Hesher’s destructive yet seemingly well-intentioned behavior.

Given that I quite literally knew nothing about Hesher outside of some promising casting choices, to say that I left the theater pleasantly surprised would be one of the biggest understatements of the year. Spencer Susser’s first feature-length film doesn’t necessarily boast a particularly involving central premise, what with two individuals struggling to come to terms with their recent loss and the feelings of anguish that coincide with it, however the introduction of Hesher himself proves that even the most unlikable of characters can transform an entire production into something enthralling and new. In embracing these two elements simultaneously, Susser has managed to strike cinematic gold, skillfully meshing the crass with the refined to give us one of the best seriocomic experiences to grace theaters in quite some time.

If the film’s intentions do become a bit muddled, it’s probably because Hesher’s behavior is so off-the-wall and sidesplittingly hilarious that it’s hard to believe his intentions are to benefit anyone but himself, but through crude, ambiguous metaphors and a whirlwind of destruction, we become aware of his awkward good-naturedness. From blowing up the school bully’s car and helping T.J. pursue his crush to forcing the young boy and his ailing father to realize the importance of what they have left, Hesher becomes precisely what the doctor ordered. As to be expected, there are bumps along this road to recovery, and unsurprisingly, Hesher is quite capable of making a few mistakes that most certainly aren’t in the favor of his newfound cohort. In the end though, it’s apparent that Hesher, in all its unconventional glory, sets out to be both affecting and wildly entertaining from a less serious standpoint, which is precisely what it ends up being.

As always, Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a knockout performance, embodying Hesher in the way only an actor of his caliber could by way of physicality and delivering each line with enough fervor to fully convince us that he was truly meant to tackle such an offbeat and oddly compelling role. Relative newcomer Devin Brochu is also very impressive as the young T.J., aptly conforming to the needs of his deeply troubled and misguided onscreen counterpart while never testing one’s patience as child actors can (very) often do. Portman and Wilson as viable members of the supporting cast also maintain a discernible presence, even if their characters seem rather subdued, tame even, next to that of Gordon-Levitt and Brochu.

Hesher isn’t a perfect film by any means; it has its flaws, but thanks to a remarkable title character that corresponds wonderfully with everything else the script has to offer, it firmly establishes itself as a refreshing, bizarrely touching and mostly hilarious entry into the ever-expanding world of independent cinema. Not everyone can or will appreciate Hesher’s highly unorthodox methods, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s remarkable portrayal of the foul-mouthed heathen with a heart of gold is enough to compel just about anyone to give this one a go. On that note, losing a loved one is hard, sometimes unbearably so, but with someone like Hesher at your side, you just may find the solace you’ve been searching for regardless of how you achieve it.

Rating: 9/10

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