Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I knew I made a wise choice in viewing material the second my DVD player loaded the main menu to Hesher.  The icon that indicates your selection is a crudely drawn fist giving the middle finger.  Nice!  Even better, the bonus scenes are called "Extra Shit."  Some films have to fight for my affection, while others have me at "Extra Shit."  Hesher, I loved you before I even pressed play.
Hesher is, shockingly, not about a character named Hesher.  It is about TJ (Devin Brochu), a tween whose mother recently died.  TJ is taking the loss hard, naturally, but he's expressing his grief through an odd attachment to the wrecked car she died in; he repeatedly bothers the junkyard owner and acts out when he doesn't sell TJ the car (that he has no money for, or a license, or insurance, or a way to fix it, etc., etc.).  Making things worse, the kid who works at the junkyard is also TJ's bully at school.  He would turn to his father for advice, but Paul (Rainn Wilson) has been popping pills for months, trying to avoid feeling anything.
"When does this movie get METAL?" Be patient.
That's when we meet Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  Hesher isn't related to TJ, he's not a family friend, and he's neither famous or infamous in their town.  Heck, we never even learn if "Hesher" is a first name, last name or nickname.  Hesher is just Hesher.  And that's how he shows up.  He was squatting in a house that was under construction when TJ accidentally blew his cover, so Hesher decides to give TJ his full attention.

This isn't the scene where Hesher threatens to skullfuck TJ.  But rest assured, it is in the movie.
Hesher shows up in TJ's school.  He follows him to the grocery store.  He even moves into TJ's house with no explanation to Paul or TJ's Grandma (Piper Laurie).  He's just Hesher, and if he wants to live in Paul's garage and hang out in his underwear, what the hell are you going to do about it?
A: drop trou and enjoy some stolen cable, courtesy of Hesher

There's more to the plot of Hesher than that, but not a lot more.  The destination is not the best part of this film's story --- this is about the journey.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is priceless in the title role.  Since JGL doesn't tend to play bad-asses, I was surprised at how convincing he was.  Maybe it was the awesome headbanging hair, or the scuzzy beard, or the first-class crazy eyes, or his fantastic tattoos (a cartoon fist flipping the middle finger across his back and a stick figure blowing his brains out across his torso) --- whatever it was, this character was completely awesome.  It helps that the character is eminently quotable; one of my favorites is "Humans been pokin' vagina for hundreds of years.  Longer, probably."  Gordon-Levitt does a good job playing quiet characters, so it might surprise you how great he is as a completely over-the-top and impossible extrapolation of that one guy in high school who really really really loved his heavy metal.  Actually...yeah...Hesher is the personification of what high school kids think is cool and dangerous.  And JGL is convincing as a scary dude, too!  Who'd a thunk it?
Another lesson learned: fire makes everything more bad-ass
Devin Brochu is okay as TJ, but it's a tough role to be totally likable in.  He's a teenager misdirecting his anger from a massive emotional trauma --- of course he's going to be whiny.  Brochu does do a good job acting as a proxy for the audience, looking suitably surprised/horrified by nearly everything Hesher chooses to do.  Rainn Wilson wasn't in a whole lot of the movie and he was not funny at all.  He was pretty fantastic, though.  It was a very subtle performance, but Wilson was excellent as a depressed father trying to move on with his life; I don't really like Wilson normally, so consider that praise well-earned.  Natalie Portman has a more substantial role as a grown woman who somehow winds up befriending TJ and becoming a love interest, of sorts.  Unfortunately, she suffered from "ugly pretty girl" syndrome, where she was given big glasses and baggy clothes to make her look nerdy and ugly.
Look at her.  I just want to vomit in her face, she's so gross!
Aside from that bit of cliche, I thought Portman did a fine job.  Piper Laurie was also good as Grandma, especially with her interactions with Hesher.  There aren't many films that show the elderly treating younger, threatening-looking folks with complete acceptance, and I thought that was an unexpected small twist.

Hesher is the first full-length theatrical work by writer/director Spencer Susser, and I think it shows.  There are a lot of things that Susser does right in this movie.  The main characters are all interesting, and their interactions feel natural even when they're doing ridiculous shit.  I was genuinely impressed with how well depression was exhibited by the characters, without being the full focus of the movie.  And, of course, I liked how high-school-awesome Hesher was.  The soundtrack (comprised entirely of Metallica and Motörhead, I believe) was also pretty great.
You know what else is great?  Markers.
Having said all that, I have to admit that this story never really gels.  The characters are individually good, but the parts never come together to form a greater whole.  Specifically, it never makes sense why TJ's family would just accept Hesher living in their house, and it never makes sense why Hesher chose to live with them.  The characters are just not woven together; this movie could have ended at almost any time and had only a marginally smaller impact on the story as a whole.  That's (obviously) the biggest problem I have with Hesher, but there are some missed opportunities as well.  The use of film style in this movie is inconsistent and, therefore, ineffective.  In the first few scenes that Hesher is in, it is questionable whether or not he is a real character, or if he is a suburban heavy metal Tyler Durden.  It turns out that he is not.  There is also an audio feedback noise that happens when somebody is going to do something crazy --- and I liked that effect --- but it lost its significance when it was also used just before Hesher got philosophical.  Hesher's inspirational speech toward the end could have been terrible, but Susser was smart enough to steer it away from genuine sentiment and back to weird and funny.
Also smart: not using tie-dye and coffee stain-halos in the main promo posters

Hesher is not a great movie, and its shortcomings in the story department are pretty obvious.  I really liked it, though.  There was enough to make this enjoyable despite its flaws, and those moments came from various sources.  I liked that there is no definitive time or place for this story; those license plates might look like California plates, but they just say "Drive Safely."  That's clever.  And there are so many chunks of dialogue that are random and abrasive, yet still very funny --- Hesher's rants about Grandma rape and orgies were stellar --- that I can't help but walk away with a positive impression.
Admittedly, it helps if you've ever looked at someone like this
Maybe the key to this film is that it is presented as a drama and it has dramatic parts...and then, over to the side, is Hesher, doing Hesher knows what.  If this was supposed to be a comedy, it would certainly be a strange one.  If you take this as a drama, though, it's not bad at all --- and it has occasional doses of awesomeness in small bursts.


  1. I largely agree with the review - a great first effort by Susser, but very "first effort" at times. I thought that the choice of having Hesher bang Portman (I like to think of the character banging the actor) in the third act was a very uncreative and weak choice in such a fresh movie. I was especially disappointed by that decision. I thought Portman did a great job. I like her much more in subtle and/or quirky roles, and take a pass at most everything else she does (except, of course, the Star Wars prequels). Also, your review should have a disclaimer that if you do not like things breaking, this is not the movie for you.

  2. Who did the artwork for the last poster, the tie-dye halo one?