A film review by Craig J. Koban November 3, 2011


2011, R, 105 mins.


Hesher: Joseph Gordon-Levitt / T.J.: Devin Brochu / Paul: Rainn Wilson / Nicole: Natalie Portman
Madeleine: Piper Laurie

Directed by Spencer Susser / Written by Susser and David Michod, from a story by Brian Charles Frank

At one point in HESHER one person asks another about the title character: “Do you know anything about him?” she asks, to which he quietly retorts, “No, not really.”  

Hmmm...that exchange is telling.  Here’s a film that has a screenplay that does little to explain much about its chief persona – who he is, where he came from, what made him who is his, etc. – nor do we get any insight into what he thinks about the people that he interacts with on a daily basis.   As a result, HESHER is an indie/dramedy that keeps viewers at an unpleasant distance; it never allows you to penetrate its meaning and reason for existing because I don’t think the film really understands its own identity.

I mean, how exactly am I to respond to this film?  HESHER has been partially advertised as a comedy, which is more than a bit unfounded.  It also has dramatic elements, which never germinates to the profound levels it thinks it does.  Hell, there is even a suggestion of social satire in the film, but what’s it cheerfully picking apart?  HESHER is a film that seems to have no clue as to whether it has comedic, dramatic, or satiric impulses and it mostly comes across as a flimsy TV sitcom idea that tries to reach complexity in all manners unconvincing.  It’s also really hard to give a damn about anyone and their journey in the film, seeing as most of them are redemption free, profanity spewing, and socially uncoordinated losers that are nearly impossible to like. 

The story – co-written by the film’s director, Spencer Susser, making his directorial debut – goes down like this:  A young boy named T.J. (a naturally poised and credible Devin Brochu) could not have asked for a more horrible family circle.  For starters, he is depressed and lonely over the recent vehicular dearth of his mother, which has turned him into a sullen and friendless lad that is ostracized and bullied at school.  His father (Rainn Wilson, in a rare and fine dramatic turn) fares no worse, seeing as he has become a self-loathing pill popper in the advent of his wife’s death and now lives at home with his mother (Piper Laurie), who is battling cancer and dementia.  Is there anything not wrong with this family? 

After one of his many morning arguments with his dad, T.J. angrily races his bike to a nearby construction site, but takes a nasty header on a beam.  In utter frustration, he throws a rock into a bay window of one of the unfinished homes, but unbeknownst to him, he has disturbed one of its residents, Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who has been secretly crashing there.  Soon, the construction site’s security team comes swooping in, which greatly angers Hesher, who threatens the boy with given up his once covert home.  Hesher storms off in his ramshackle van, leaving a breathless T.J. beside himself.  To make matters even worse for the hapless T.J., he returns home one day to find that Hesher has invited himself inside T.J.’s grandmother’s home (he has been following T.J. for some time).  He takes his clothes off, washes them, sits on the living room coach in his undies, and then complains that his grandmother’s TV has only a few channels and none of them of the porn variety.  Of course, both T.J. and his father are a bit stupefied by the sudden appearance of a complete stranger in their home, but Hesher coerces T.J. to pass him off as one of his friends so that he can stay, but in reality Hesher does not really need an invite to remain at his home; he has essentially invited himself there for an extended stay. 



Hesher himself is a real piece of work.  He looks like a prototypical head banger degenerate with his Jesus-like mane of hair and a body adorned with tattoos ranging from violent images to a giant one of the most famous one finger salute.  He seems unhealthy fixated with fire and torching things that are not his own.  He’s morally repugnant, unendingly obscene, ruthlessly hot-tempered, pathetically unkempt, and acts out his most inner frustrations in cruel and vengeful ways (he grabs T.J. by the throat on numerous occasions out of agitation).  This dude is just…I dunno…a dangerously unstable loose canon that can clearly do more harm than good to both himself and all other around him.   

This leads me, of course, to one simple question: why on earth would anyone in T.J.’s family circle ever allow this revolting creature within five feet of their home without calling the cops?  Moreover, why do any of them continue to allow him to stay as long as he likes?  What are the motivations of these people?  What possible benefit is there in letting him reside with them as long as possible?  The film’s screenplay never once provides a satisfying answer, which has the negative effect of making the entire film feel dramatically phony.  The only reason Hesher stays is because the screenplay allows him that luxury.  It just strains credulity to the max to see a largely dysfunctional family knee-deep sadness that immediately and willfully allows a hooligan with no redeeming qualities whatsoever to stay with them.   

And speaking of phony and false, how about the script’s laughable attempts of making Hesher a convenient character just when he needs to be for the sake of assisting or hurting the family, all in an effort to amp up his goon with a heart of gold personality.  Hesher becomes such an annoyingly abstract character in the film, mostly because the screenplay mechanically and dutifully makes him either mean, violent, potty mouthed, kind, or considerate when required.  Yet, HESHER tries to lay out a message that a criminal fiend like him is just the right medicine for this traumatized home to heal.  This all builds to an ending that’s as counterfeit as a three dollar bill: it involves a funeral, an angry eulogy, something being done to a coffin that’s a decided no-no in times of mourning, and a finale that has Hesher return a highly sought after item back to T.J..  Films should never be as manipulative and turn themselves into a piece of audience placating pap like HESHER does in its final minutes. 

The real shame is that the film has good performances.  I liked Brochu as the grieving and angry T.J., who gives the most credible performance in the film.  Rainn Wilson is deceptively subtle showing the feeble helplessness of his role.  Piper Laurie is all kinds of sublime as her sick, but positive minded grandmother that may be the most adjusted of the lot considering that death is breathing down her door.  Natalie Portman shows up as a lowly grocery store clerk that befriends T.J. and she finds a nice undercurrent of meagerness to her de-glammed role, even if it’s routinely underdeveloped (surprising, considering her co-producer credit here).  Then there is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor I’ve admired for years that brings all kind of unhinged tenacity as the savagely intense and loony Hesher.  He’s so good at immersing himself in the part, but his performance is almost upstaged by how little his character is embellished by the shortsighted script.   

There’s not much that’s funny in Hesher (seeing a family suffer through tragedy is not amusing) and there’s not much genuine sentiment or drama in the film either, mostly because it’s truly hard to find a social deviant like Hesher to be a resonating character that we can root for.  The film just uncontrollably stumbles throughout its running time until I just reached a point where I did not have an idea of what it was trying to be about or what its ultimate themes were.  That, and its would be-uplifting ending where characters are healed feels fraudulent.   

The film, like its title persona, is a real aimless burnout. 

  H O M E