Sometimes it seems like the strangest people enter our lives at the most inopportune moments. Then, years later, upon deeper reflection, their presence fits into the glorious chaos of our lives like a missing piece of some massive cosmic puzzle. Such is the case with TJ, a bullied little boy who recently lost his mother, and Hesher, a Metallica-loving anarchist who is essentially an id sporting obscene prison ink. The debut feature from director/co-writer Spencer Susser (who penned the screenplay alongside Animal Kingdom writer/director David Michôd), Hesher captures one of those tender, life-altering encounters in a way that's anything but precious, imbuing it with a refreshing sense of recklessness and compelling stylistic flair that perfectly complements Joseph Gordon-Levitt's volatile centerpiece performance.
In the wake of his mother's recent death, 13-year-old TJ (Devin Brochu) finds the bumpy road to emotional recovery all the more difficult due to the dual facts that he's bullied at school and that his father (Rainn Wilson) has become a vacant pill-head. Just when it seems like things couldn't possibly get any worse, TJ strikes up an unusual friendship with Hesher (Gordon-Levitt), a greasy-haired anarchist with a beat-up van, homemade tattoos, and a soft spot for explosions. The next thing TJ knows, Hesher is sitting in his living room and watching porn on the family television. Later, though, just as TJ summons the courage to pursue a friendship with Nicole (Natalie Portman), a kindly grocery-store clerk who came to his aid in a time of need, an explosive discovery threatens to propel the embattled teen down a dangerous path of self-destruction.
Though Hesher is ostensibly set in California sometime during the late '80s or early '90s, director Susser does a commendable job of avoiding retro irony to tell an honest story driven by genuine emotion; his film gives an unmistakable sense of time and place, but the character conflicts he creates, along with co-writer Michôd, keep us focused on the story instead of the style. Hesher is exactly the kind of kid our parents warned us about in high school -- and just like many of those misunderstood misfits, he's actually much more intuitive than appearances suggest. By contrasting Hesher with TJ, whose overwhelming sense of loss has left him unable to break free from his role as victim to the school's biggest bully, Susser and Michôd create a compelling character dynamic that serves to playfully shock while simultaneously offering insight into TJ's true nature and the grief that now threatens to destroy his family. The combination of coarse humor and heartfelt storytelling lends Hesher not only a unique sense of humor, but also an authenticity that benefits from powerful performances by the two leads.
Riding the wave of success that swelled with memorable roles in such films as Brick, (500) Days of Summer, and Inception, Gordon-Levitt once again displays his uncanny talent for disappearing into a character. It would have been incredibly easy to overplay a role like that of Hesher, though thanks to Gordon-Levitt's perfectly modulated performance, the character that could have been a caricature never feels overly forced or inauthentic. And his barely contained energy is perfectly offset by young Brochu's desperate and withdrawn performance as TJ, a boy who has grown so despondent from the loss of a parent he's lost all sense of direction and self-worth. By the time he meets Hesher, TJ has essentially shut down emotionally, and Brochu does a fantastic job of letting us see those small guarded moments when TJ begins to reawaken. Accessorized with heinous birth-control glasses and draped in unflattering late-'80s fashions, Portman is still a bit too pretty to be entirely believable as the luckless grocery-store clerk who needs TJ's affirmations as much as he needs hers, but a bearded Rainn Wilson plays the role of TJ's father with a sense of detachment that, once shed, lends the film's off-beat climax a sense of palpable tenderness. Meanwhile, screen veteran Piper Laurie is virtually unrecognizable, yet highly effective, as TJ's big-hearted grandmother -- a lonely old woman who endeavors to hold her family together, but just can't seem to summon the strength, or words, to do so.
Though sensitive viewers may find it difficult to endure Hesher's profane metaphors and reckless behavior, one of the crucial themes in the movie is our inability to look past the surface elements in our lives to find the true meaning buried somewhere underneath. For viewers capable of doing just that, Hesher is truly a film worth head-banging about.