I can hear the conversation in the pitch meeting now. “This is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s film. But he isn’t going to be the charming, clean-cut, charismatic Joe that the world has seen. He’s going to be fucking crazy, man. Like a heavy metal Ted Nugent loving anarchist. And he’s going to be great.” But what about the rest of the movie? “Don’t worry about that, it’s Joe Gordon-Levitt!”
It is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And his performance is crazy, good and crazy-good as Hesher, the title character with long hair, a ‘fuck you’ tattoo on his back and a windowless van. He is an anarchist who has a chance encounter with a troubled young kid named TJ (played by Devin Brochu). Two months ago, TJ’s mom was killed in a tragic car accident, leaving him and his father (Rainn Wilson) devastated and lost in the world. But after TJ’s chance encounter with Hesher, the anarchists decides that he’s going to move in. He doesn’t ask, he just moves in and begins living with TJ, his father and his grandmother.
Right from the start, this feature debut from Spencer Susser (whose short I Love Sarah Jane made waves at Sundance 2008) has a very aggressive tone. It’s clear that the character of Hesher is meant to cut right through the film with a heavy metal appeal just as he cuts through the lives of TJ and his family. What’s interesting is choices in scoring — quick bursts of heavy rock when Hesher appears and during the opening titles. These little moments are intense, but they’re out of place. They set up the character as pure chaos in this generally sad, dramatic story.
While there’s anger and angst on the surface of Hesher, there’s even more under the surface with TJ. The performance from young Devin Brochu is what really makes this film, as he gives TJ depth. We can see that he’s sad and scared after the loss of his mom, but we can also see that he’s aware of what is wrong with the people around him. He is constantly critical of his father, who has become mostly comatose on the couch, popping pills to numb the pain he has. Wilson’s performance is also very solid, another point for Susser’s film. It is incredibly well cast — even Natalie Portman shows up in a smaller role as an equally lost girl who befriends TJ, and watches with him as Hesher continues to make his life hell. And by making his life hell, we’re talking about stuff like setting the car of a local bully on fire (or rather, blowing it up) and leaving TJ to be taken in by the police. The guy hates the world, is completely amoral and we’re constantly left to question whether or not he will ever turn to show some redeeming qualities. It’s a well-crafted, well-acted character who is fascinating enough to carry the film alongside the wonderful performance from Brochu.
Aside from the previously mentioned aggression and interesting choices in scoring, director Spencer Susser has created a very darkly humorous, and ultimately thoughtful drama about dealing with loss and moving on with one’s life. He delivers a film that is aesthetically consistent, has a fairly fluid narrative and features characters that are, at the very least, interesting to watch. The whole thing is anchored by a wild performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is once again up to the task. It is his movie, in the end.