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Hesher

Gordon-Levitt Gets Heavy

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

In one role after another, 30-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven himself as one of the best actors of his generation. He has shown depth and range, transforming himself from role to role.

In indie films, Gordon-Levitt has proven himself fearless, willing to take on variety of difficult, demanding roles (The Lookout, Brick, Mysterious Skin, Manic) or light, comic roles ((500) Days of Summer). For Gordon-Levitt’s role as the title character in Hesher, he transforms himself into a long-haired, unkempt, rage-filled, monosyllabic metalhead, and the catalyst for an unconventional grief drama.

Hesher, however, centers on T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu), an angry, withdrawn teenager still recovering from the recent loss of his mother in a car accident. T.J.’s working-class father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), numbs himself through a steady diet of prescription pills and group-therapy sessions. Neither can see through the prism of their own pain and trauma.

T.J.’s grandmother, Madeleine (Piper Laurie), who shares the house with T.J. and his father, cooks and cleans, but otherwise remains invisible to them. At school, T.J. runs afoul of a bully, the same bully who happens to be the son of the owner (John Carroll Lynch) of a junkyard where his parents’ trashed car sits — a car T.J. wants to buy back from the junkyard owner.

Hesher enters T.J.’s life not by design, but by accident or coincidence. Angry after falling from his bicycle again (a seemingly regular occurrence), T.J. breaks the first-floor window of an abandoned housing project where Hesher, a man without a home (or past) lives. In retaliation, Hesher follows T.J. home and, without an exchange of words, simply moves in. Territorial by nature, Hesher strips down to his dirty briefs (to do laundry), stomps around heavily, smokes inside, and otherwise freeloads on the Forney household with only the briefest notice from an uncomfortably numbed Paul and a surprisingly accepting Madeleine. She extends her hospitality to the raging, semi-naked stranger sitting in their living room.

As real to everyone else as he is to T.J., Hesher reflects T.J.’s turbulent inner life, holding back when T.J. confronts the bully, then reacting disproportionately when T.J. goads him into property destruction (and worse). Hesher also reflects T.J.’s nascent desire for a decade-older cashier, Nicole (Natalie Portman), who intervenes on T.J.’s behalf during what seem to be regularly scheduled beatdowns by his tormentor. Hesher, however, can and does act freely where T.J., constrained by social norms and his diminutive size, can’t, setting up the inevitable move toward restoring Paul and T.J. to each other, albeit unconventionally through Hesher as metalhead savior.

Drawing inspiration from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema and, before that, Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (remade in 1983 as Down and Out in Beverly Hills), co-writer and director Spencer Susser avoids the explicit and implicit social, cultural, and political commentary present in Pasolini and Renoir’s films for something more abstract and universal.

The Forneys aren’t a wealthy family desperately in need of an attitude adjustment and/or political awakening. They’re simply a family of limited means and, presumably downward mobility, as a result of the recent recession are taken as a given. Susser never gives Hesher a backstory. We can make assumptions based on his physical appearance and behavior, but nothing else.

As refreshingly non-reductive as a lack of backstory may be, it also proves problematic for Hesher’s unconvincing character arc. First Madeleine, then Nicole break through Hesher’s metalhead façade. Susser gives Hesher a drunken, faux-idiotic speech that’s both cheaply sentimental and contextually ludicrous. Perhaps Susser lost his nerve or gave in to a desire to humanize Hesher, but as a character reflecting T.J.’s tormented, turbulent inner life, he was best relegated to secondary status in the secondary. It seems Susser forgot T.J., not Hesher, was his central character.

Not surprisingly, Gordon-Levitt’s performance saves that scene (and many before it) from being unwatchable. Despite Hesher’s missing backstory, Gordon-Levitt gives Hesher’s raging metalhead a preternatural, predatory awareness of his surroundings, imbuing every gesture or glance with palpable menace and the threat of violence (something new to Gordon-Levitt’s acting repertoire). He’s the central, but by no means only, reason to see Hesher.

Susser elicits uniformly excellent performances from Devin Brochu as T.J. (he holds his own against Gordon-Levitt) and Rainn Wilson as Paul. Given her A-list, Oscar-winning status, Portman’s role is smaller than expected, but becomes clear once you learn she also produced Hesher.