I can see how some might initially dismiss Hesher as a quirky indie drama that struggles to find a consistent tone. One minute you’re watching an emotional family dinner, only to be followed by pounding guitar riffs emphasizing comedic beats. Some might also complain about a lack of character motivation and backstory. But whatever is lacking in this film is more than made up with compelling characters and strong performances from the entire cast.
Devin Brochu plays T.J. Forney, a quiet kid living with his father (Rainn Wilson) and grandmother (Piper Laurie) after recently losing his mother in a car accident. Through a series of unfortunate situations, he runs into Hesher, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a loner metal-head with greasy hair and homemade tattoos covering his body. Hesher decides that he is going to live in T.J.’s grandma’s house, where he quickly gets himself involved with the family struggling with their pain.
Almost just as randomly T.J. meets Nicole, played by the incredible Natalie Portman (also a producer on this film), when she saves him from a bully. Despite their age difference, they become close friends who always seem to be at the right places to help each other out of bad situations.
This must have been a fun part to play for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, much as I imagine Tyler Durden being a fun role for Brad Pitt. What actor wouldn’t kill for the chance to play a bad-ass rebel who takes control of every scene and is able to put attitude into every little movement and gesture. It is a film like this really shows the full range and potential Gordon-Levitt has as an actor. No one else is able to transition so smoothly from playing the sensitive indie-romance guy, like in 500 Day of Summer, to a much harder role, such as this one or in Manic.
He is also one of only a few actors, along with Ryan Gosling, to be able to have the artistic freedom with his career to do both artsy indie roles and big summer blockbusters like Inception or the upcoming Batman film. All in all, he just seems like a likable guy, despite any character, that you are simply interested in watching on the screen.
And speaking of liking to watch on screen, Natalie Portman gives yet another strong, lovable performance in what is her fifth feature film release in the past six month. But acting talent aside, she still comes across as completely gorgeous in this role, despite the filmmaker’s best efforts to try to make Natalie Portman look homely. This only goes to show that ultimately it is her magnetic personality that makes her a compelling actress. In this role, she gives her character a certain venerability that hasn’t been seen since Garden State, making her the girl of every guy’s dreams and someone you just want to hang out with.
The other surprising performance in this film comes from Rainn Wilson, most recognizable as Dwight from The Office. Wilson has been making a steady transition from his iconic television role into feature films, but mostly into teen comedies in the past. This role, however, is a perfect step for him to show off a more human, dramatic role. While some of the role is a little monotone, I think that comes more from the writing than in Wilson’s performance, who delivered exactly what the story needed.
The only real complaint with this film is it’s overall lack of character backstories and motivations. Certain things, like why Hesher decides specifically to move into T.J.’s house, are never explained as much as you would want them to. Obviously some of this was left out deliberately to set up some reveals later in this film and to add to the mystery of Hesher’s character and the overall tone of the film, but there is a fine line between mystery and not having any real depth to the characters. For instance, there was almost no background on where Hesher really came from or what made him who he is today, but incorporating a little bit of this into the end of the film would have given his character just the right amount of depth and humanity that was lacking from the film.
But that’s not really what this film is about. From a filmmaking perspective, this film isn’t about complicated, technical writing or flashy cinematography and editing, but rather to show strong performances from interesting and talented actors who give the film it’s emotional depth otherwise lost in the script.
From a storytelling perspective, this film is just a simple story about how a grieving family learns to deal with their loss. It is about the random people that get involved with your life and how sometimes they end up making the biggest difference when you least expect it.