When Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Hesher, and his big black ominous van rolls into the Forney family’s driveway and forcefully “moves in”, anarchy ensues, both within the narrative context of the film and the functionality of the film as whole.
The film centers around T.J. (Devin Brochu), a young, scrawny, misguided boy, coping with the recent death of his mother. At home, his pill-popping dad (Rainn Wilson) spends his days sleeping and moping, as his wife’s death has transformed him into depressing shell of a man. All the while, T.J.’s aging grandma (Piper Laurie) tries her hardest to hold what’s left of the family together. Confused, directionless, and heartbroken, T.J. spends his days desperately trying to get back the car his mother was killed in from the impound- a desperate bid to hold onto some sort of memento to preserve her memory.
Enter Hesher. A young, grundgy metalhead who is quite literally a personified “giving the middle finger” (this notion further purported by the massively intricate middle finger tattoo that encompasses over three quarters of his back). After T.J. accidentally puts Hesher out of the housing development he was squatting in, he shows up at T.J.’s house and forcefully asserts himself as a permanent resident.
Like so many indie coming-of-age films before it, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s role as the wise, unconventional mentor is the best part of the film. Particularly because half the time, his character functions as both mentor and antagonist. Hesher’s anarchist mentality and no-holds-barred attitude becomes the source of all T.J.’s problems, particularly involving an on-going conflict with a school bully, that with Hesher’s help, quickly escalates into acts of arson, home-invasion, and some minor torture. Yet, as much as Hesher is a nuisance for T.J., he has his few fleeting moments of compassion and a general sense of mentorship for the flailing boy.
Further conflict evolves when Hesher discovers T.J.’s boyish crush on Natalie Portman’s indie-pixie, mom-jeans wearing, sad sap of a character Nicole. While her role in this film is minor, predictable, and somewhat pointless, Portman’s dull and shrill character serves best as a representation of the how the film lazily crafts its characters around Hesher and his antics. In what is essentially the film’s highest point, Hesher leads T.J. and Nicole into the backyard pool of a vacant suburban house, and proceeds to cause mayhem as he rampages around throwing everything in sight into the pool, lighting the diving board on fire, and jumping off into the chaos he created. As the two watch Hesher, astonished and bewildered, the scene becomes a metaphor for the film’s glossed emptiness. Forced quirkiness, raw attitude, mystery, humor, and unpredictability all forced into one character as an attempt to draw attention from the otherwise insignificant, dry storyline and one-dimensional characters.
Ultimately, Hesher is a trying mess. At some points it works very well as a comedy, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance further augments that he is one of today’s most versatile actors. Yet the timely demise of the this lone positive factor, and transformation of the film into a depressing character study of the film’s least interesting characters make it a somewhat forgettable, unsatisfying glossy picture. As quickly and abruptly as the film introduces Gordon-Levitt’s character, it makes sure to pull him out in the same fashion, and leaves us with absolutely no regard for explaining his character. Perhaps if director Spencer Susser spent less time intoxicated with his titular character and more time working on a more effective way of incorporating him within the framework of the narrative and developing his backstory, Hesher would be a far more revealing and poignant film.