Though it has the early designs to be a head-spinning mystery, "Hesher" is no puzzle. What a disappointment. An abrasive dark comedy that invests more in mood than substance, the picture feeds off an anarchic ambiance of metalhead insight, showing a fist when all it really wants to do is offer a hug. Blowing a glorious opportunity to create substantial psychological mischief, "Hesher" would rather play it safe, though this is hardly a traditional domestic drama.
After losing his mother to a horrible car accident, young T.J. (Devin Brochu) is lost to grief, unable to shake his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), out of his paralyzing depression, while grandmother Madeline (Piper Laurie) attempts to keep the house together through family dinners. Into their world comes Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a tattooed, long-haired metal burnout with an unexpected devotion to the family, moving in when T.J. accidentally gets him kicked out of his old place. A man of few words, but always ready to intimidate and destroy, Hesher soon reaches out to T.J. as a sibling of sorts, urging the boy to combat his fears, including interaction with friendly grocery store clerk, Nicole (Natalie Portman). However, the closer Hesher gets to intimacy, the harder he rebels, keeping the family in a state of shock as the headbanger endeavors to heal them.
I felt cheated by "Hesher," which, I admit, is an odd reaction to such a low-budget indie film. Here's a picture that deals with the suffocating grip of grief, with director Spencer Susser spending a great amount of screentime wallowing in misery, tracking T.J.'s efforts to process his mother's untimely death and snap his father out of the pill-popping fog he's been in ever since. It seems like a natural extension to have Hesher emerge as a manifestation of this sorrow, cracking open the family with his crude acts of therapy and destructive extraction. The character should be this invisible figure of crooked redemption, using his Metallica-scored bluntness to shake up these lives, emerging from the corners of their minds like a shirtless vision of benevolent punishment.
Criminally, Hesher is a very real character, quickly established as a young man anyone can see, regardless of their state of mourning. This revelation, made early in the movie, is a miscalculation that opens the film up to more questions than it cares to answer, ruining the surreal ambiance of the early scenes. Suddenly, Hesher is an earthbound problem, not a rebellious phantom, creating an unsettling tone of heroism for a character that lives to demolish, establishing anarchy without every truly dealing with his actions in a satisfying, respectful manner. I found it impossible to celebrate Hesher's life lessons, especially when the screenwriting has trouble creating plausible motivation for the family and their unlikely acceptance of a complete stranger.
Logic isn't big with "Hesher," with Susser treating the feature like a fever dream, employing anachronistic costuming to generate a 1988 mood for a picture set in 2009. The artifice is rodeo clowning for the script's flaws, with huge gaps of character development lost to a film that would rather stay on Hesher and his staring contests than tell a full-throated story. Even worse, the movie makes a play for profound emotional release in the final act, again treating these one-dimensional characters as rounded elements of grief, with Susser glazing the whole film in a feeble "appreciate your loved ones" theme. The sentiment is unearned, but much of "Hesher" is, assuming a great deal of discomfort and idiosyncratic distance is enough to pass for an insightful dark comedy.
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