Even a lout can do some good
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 13, 2011
Bad role models sometimes make the most interesting movie characters.
The ill-mannered, unkempt, foulmouthed and hot-tempered title character of “Hesher” is just such a walking contradiction. Although he lends his name to this dark and funny drama, the long-haired, tattooed loner (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is not the focal point of the film.
Rather, it’s T. J. Forney (Devin Brochu), a grieving middle-schooler who has lost his mother in a car accident. When the film opens, T.J. is pretty much on his own, with his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), stuck in a stupor of prescription medication and self-pity, and his grandmother Madeleine (Piper Laurie, never better) lost in a fog of incipient dementia.
If T.J. is the film’s heart, Hesher is just off-center, moving through this cinematic universe in a cockeyed orbit that gives the story its offbeat energy and keeps the audience spellbound until the strange, and strangely touching, conclusion.
When we first meet Hesher, he’s living in an abandoned building. After T.J. throws a rock through his window — inadvertently bringing the attention of the police — Hesher must find a new home. Soon he’s set up camp in the Forneys’ garage.
Before long, Hesher is sharing Grandma’s home-cooked meals at the kitchen table and offering his unsolicited services to T.J. as a twisted kind of big brother. Meaning that he is at once both savior — from, for example, the local bully — and tormentor in his own right.
Perhaps the worst thing Hesher does, in a long string of misdeeds, is to betray T.J. by seducing a young grocery-store clerk named Nicole (Natalie Portman), who has taken the boy under her wing, filling T.J. with feelings that are part filial and part lustful.
The relationship between T.J. and Nicole is just one of several tender, off-kilter relationships in “Hesher.” None, however, is sweeter or more unexpected than the friendship that develops between Hesher and Madeleine. The scene in which he gently tutors her on the use of a bong — as a way to cut the harshness of the medical marijuana she smokes for unspecified ailments — is heartbreaking and funny.
Make no mistake, though: Hesher is not the cliched crazy man with a heart of gold we’ve seen in far too many movies. (Robin Williams to the white courtesy phone!) He is not lovable, let alone likable, despite a performance by Gordon-Levitt that makes it hard to take your eyes off him.
Hesher is not a healer. He’s selfish, immature, impulsive and, quite frankly, dangerous. And, to the movie’s great credit, he’s determined to stay that way. Over the course of the film, he doesn’t learn any valuable life lessons. And the one time he tries to offer one up — in a drunken, unprintable speech — his attempt falls apart in an explosion of inarticulate rage, punctuated by a beer can hurled at a wall.
Hesher doesn’t fix things; he breaks them.
Which is, in the end, precisely what T.J. and his father need to knock them out of the emotional logjam they’ve found themselves in.
That drunken speech Hesher delivers? It culminates in the punch line “one good nut,” the significance of which cannot be explained in a family newspaper. Trust me, it’s a pretty hilarious line, in context. But it’s also, as it turns out, a pretty accurate description of “Hesher.”
Contains frequent obscenity and sexual references, drug use, a brief sex scene, violence and other forms of antisocial behavior, some of which occurs in the presence of a minor child.