I finally got to see the Sundance and South by Southwest festival film Hesher. It is dangerous, immoral and just plain wrong at parts, and that makes it fantasy. I don’t even think it’s wish fulfillment. It’s just putting bold concepts on screen and asking audiences to deal with them.
T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu) is a kid living with his depressed dad Paul (Rainn Wilson) and grandmother Madeline (Piper Laurie). One day he runs into Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) squatting in a model home, so Hesher comes to stay with the Forneys instead.
Hesher is immediately a volatile character. His entrance is totally silent and you know exactly who he is from his look, his walk and his attitude before he even says one line. He’s not the charming “real world” mentor. He’s the real real-world crashing into T.J.’s life.
The story is about forcing T.J. to deal with an adult world. Hesher won’t stop a bully from beating T.J. up, but he’ll vandalize the bully’s car and leave T.J. hanging at the crime scene. Hesher stands up for T.J.’s friend Nicole (Natalie Portman) when she rear ends a mean driver, but she’s actually in the wrong. I don’t think the film tries to give Hesher a moral code and that’s why it works. It’s just there for T.J. to deal with.
But it gets harder Paul drags T.J. along to a support group where he has to hear really serious mourners talk about their dead daughter. That’s way too intense for a kid, but that’s reality. The film never coddles T.J. Adults won’t help him. He’s in mortal danger with major fire and explosive stunts. Hesher encourages T.J. to spend more time with his grandma, in the most vulgar way possible.
The great part about the movie is that writer/director Spencer Susser never explains where Hesher came from. He’s just there to be part of the Forney’s life and be mysterious. They do explain what happened to T.J.’s mom/Paul’s wife but it’s effective as backstory flashbacks go.
Susser never glorifies Hesher either. He only documents him. That’s why it’s fun to see this totally destructive character. It’s not some smug statement about shaking up social rules. It’s just guys like Hesher exist and right or wrong, you’ve got to face them. Of course, to watch Gordon-Levitt give a Nicolas Cage-worthy performance is worth watching the movie on its own.