Hesher (Newmarket Films, R)

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Hesher works about half the time. There are brilliant sequences but at least as many that are squandered opportunities.

 

 

If true art is angsty then Hesher should be hanging in the Louvre because the whole film is basically an exploration of the anguished psyche of a 13-year-old boy. The boy in question, T.J. (Devin Brochu), recently lost his mother in an automobile accident and is also being targeted by a particularly vicious bully at school. It's just the kind of moment when a kid could use some adult guidance, but T.J. has to lock up the pain within himself because his father (Rainn Wilson) is almost comatose from his own grief while T.J.'s grandmother (Piper Laurie) is well-meaning but dealing with her own health issues.

Enter Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a long-haired, foul-mouthed, tattooed semi-adult who invites himself into T.J.'s life and home. Hesher is part guardian angel, part agent provacateur and maybe 100% the product of T.J.'s imagination. That's no spoiler because you get indications from the start that Hesher is not real in the corporeal sense; he appears and disappears with amazing alacrity, once just as T.J.'s English teacher is discussing symbolism, and the other characters tolerate behavior from him that they would be extremely unlikely to excuse in reality.

On the other hand, Hesher does interact with other characters in the film besides T.J., and he doesn't do anything completely over the top like flying or turning time backwards. There's an element of unreality in other aspects of the film as well, particularly T.J.'s nine lives as he courts deadly danger from the film's opening sequence but suffers nothing worse than a few artistically-placed scratches. Not everyone at the press screening agreed with my interpretation so perhaps it's best to take an agnostic attitude and let the film wash over you without making a firm decision until the close of the final credits sequence.

Hesher works about half the time. There are brilliant sequences but at least as many that are squandered opportunities (for instance, the scene in which Hesher teaches grandma how to smoke a bong) or in which the symbolism remains at the junior-high school level (I'd put T.J.'s obsession with recovering the smashed body of the car in which his mother was killed in that category for sure). There's a subplot with Natalie Portman playing an improbably unattractive grocery store clerk who becomes the object of T.J.'s barely-conscious fantasies that is right out of the plot-o-matic. It doesn’t help that Portman plays this role as if she had at least one eye fixed on better opportunities down the road.

Devin Brochu delivers quite a performance, although if you are really paying attention you can see that a lot of credit should also go to director Spencer Susser, cinematographer Morgan Susser and editors Michael McCusker and Spencer Susser for producing an effective performance from a young actor in his largest role to date. Gordon-Levitt chews up all the scenery and steals the spotlight whenever he's on camera, while the other characters are not developed to any depth and a promising concept gradually morphs into a predictable indie flick. A drab palette makes the whole experience more tedious than necessary and reinforces the film's tendency to wallow in a sort of unfocused despair, while also taking unnecessary potshots at the fake-wood-paneling aspects of life below the middle class. There's also a lot of offensive language and behavior that I found excessive, even given my interpretation of the film.

As Spencer Susser's debut feature (which he co-wrote with David Michod, from a story by Brian Charles Frank) Hesher is impressive, however, and a brief flashback sequence leading up to the fateful car accident demonstrates that Susser doesn't need to rely on heavy metal music, profanity, or expressive weather to communicate through film. The end credits sequence is quite a visual treat, particularly if you're in to obscene graffiti of the sort that would appeal to a 13-year-old boy, and as always I recommend sticking around for the whole film rather than bolting the moment the feature action is completed. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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