Take a linear narrative, throw in a dash of chaos, and you end up with Hesher, a film that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010 but didn't see an official theatrical release until 2011. Playing with the person-helps-grieving-family storyline we've seen countless times, this is one of those indie dramas that assembles a cast of well-known actors and allows them to branch out from what's expected of them. The story, whether good or bad, functions as an opportunity for actors to play against type in a way that a typical mainstream movie wouldn't allow. Hardly a surprise, Hesher opened to mixed reviews with the majority of praise going to the actors and the majority of complaints going to the script and film itself. Well, with performances of this caliber and a story that is stronger than it has been given credit for; this film is actually quite successful.
T.J. (Devin Brochu) and his father Paul (Rainn Wilson) have recently suffered a traumatic loss that leaves them living with T.J.'s grandmother (Piper Laurie) and retreating into depression. T.J., who has found himself frequently tormented at school, becomes reclusive from those around him, while Paul wanders around the house in a prescription drug-induced daze. One day, T.J. stumbles upon Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose name and presence seem to be accompanied by the music of Metallica. In a classic example of deus ex machina, Hesher appears out of nowhere, with no back-story, and no reason to be in the film. He looks like a Grunge-era reject, drives a beat-up old van, has an upraised middle finger tattooed on his back, and seems to embrace chaos. He's also indifferent to societal rules; willfully disrespectful, vulgar, and violent. Despite T.J.'s protests, he moves into T.J.'s house and no one seems to care. During this time, T.J. meets Nicole (Natalie Portman), a young woman who captures his attention but turns her own attention to Hesher.
There are some inconsistencies in the script, particularly in regards to the title character. There is no logical reason for him to be in this film and his entire existence is disconnected from everything around him. The writers struggle to stay true to this strange character as he seems abnormally out-of-this-world one moment and like a human being with feelings and a conscience the next. It's a predictable move for this film to shape him from an ominous, violent thug into a caring, gentle soul; but luckily Gordon-Levitt is a gifted enough actor to make this transformation believable. Levitt crossed the threshold from child actor to real actor long ago, so there's no need to provide further proof about his acting ability. Regardless, Hesher is a great character role despite the inability of the film to define just who/what the character is. Once Levitt appears in character, it's impossible to take your eyes off him and who else but Levitt could make Hesher's speech at the end reach such a level of comic poignancy? Aside from Hesher, who is only truly developed from the performance rather than the script, the characters here are very well-developed and are brought to life marvelously.
This is the second time this year that Wilson has branched out from his Office character to prove what a gifted actor he is. There's very little humor in his character, giving Wilson the chance to stretch his acting muscles and bring Paul through a seamlessly convincing character arc. Brochu is a gifted young talent who brings some real, convincing emotional depth to the character of T.J. and Laurie, as the grandmother, is a lovely addition to the cast.
Hesher is an unapologetically weird little film that is destined to be misunderstood by most audiences. This little oddity of an indie drama is dark and violent, but ultimately sweet and hopeful and even funny at times. By the time Hesher reaches the end of his character arc, it's all a bit contrived, but, call me crazy, I was quite fond of it. It plays with a traditional formula, isn't afraid to take chances, and boasts some very memorable performances. It's no masterpiece, but it's an enticing, satisfying film that kept me glued to the screen for its entire running time.