If you’re already a Joseph Gordon-Levitt fan (as this reviewer most definitely is), you’re going to be oh so pleased by Hesher. And if you’re not yet a fan… oh, you will be.
Tween T.J. (Devin Brochu) really misses his dead mom. Dad (Rainn Wilson) doesn’t shave any more and sleeps the day away on the couch. Grandma (Piper Laurie) is one step away from complete dementia. Bullies lurk in every corner, just waiting to make him eat used urinary pads.
Who’s going to help this young lad cope with his grief and confusion — and, indeed, take the place of every role model he once had? Enter Hesher (Gordon-Levitt), a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, ultra-tattoed metalhead who ends up squatting in the garage and likes to set things on fire (both literally and figuratively).
This is one of Gordon-Levitt’s finest performances, perhaps second only to his turn as a teenage prostitute in Mysterious Skin. The film’s lack of sentimentality (at least until the second half of the third act) allows JGL the chance to go hog wild with this dude. Writer-director Spencer Susser gives Hesher an almost mystical quality — indeed, there’s a chance that Hesher didn’t exist until T.J. needed him to exist. This guardian angel/demon seems born of a young boy’s id, full of lust, piss and vinegar, a devil-may-care attitude and a fearless sense of self. He’s also extremely dangerous and proudly sociopathic, but who said the road to redemption, healing and manhood was going to be a safe one?
Both the anti-hero and Shakespearean fool of the film, Hesher doesn’t offer any answers — easy, difficult or otherwise — when it comes to dealing with grief, coping with growing pains or coming to terms with having a crush on the nerdy cashier who’s way too old for you (played by Natalie Portman, in her 85th film appearance this year). And, despite his, shall we say, unorthodox methods, he ends up being one of the more empowering mentor figures in contemporary cinema. Hesher doesn’t offer much in the way of sage, life-changing wisdom to his protege — he is the starter pistol (or homemade bomb) that gets the blood flowing again. Hesher can show T.J. a few possible rugged paths he could take, but the choice, and the journey, is ultimately the young boy’s alone.
With its brutally honest depiction of human weakness — at first cynical and finally optimistic — Hesher could very well end up being a punk rock mini-classic, a sort of Fight Club for pre-teen boys. Gordon-Levitt energizes the entire film to the point where the few cliches involving grief and puppy love are rendered barely noticeable. Gordon-Levitt shines, sparks and shimmers with danger and excitement — you might just find yourself enchanted by this angry philosopher, though we don’t recommend the pyrotechnics.