Sundance Film Festival Review: Hesher

by Whitney Borup

Life has been pretty hard for T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu). He’s pushed around at school, ignored at home, gets into a whole slew of bike accidents, and, to top it all off, his mom was recently killed in a car crash. Then Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) enters the picture and things just get worse. A violent, calloused anarchist, Hesher decides to move into T.J.’s grandma’s house and there doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can do to stop him – not that they would even try. Ever since his wife’s death T.J.s dad (Rainn Wilson) has been slumped over on the couch, staring into space. We start to look to Hesher, the only active and charismatic person in the house, to pull this family together. But he just doesn’t give a shit.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks incredible as Hesher. He’s covered in crudely drawn tattoos, goes shirtless and pantless for most of the film, and sports long, tangled hair that menacingly falls in front of his face. His performance is equally charming. No matter how violent or unreasonable Hesher gets, he still seems like someone you’d like to know…from a distance. Excellently placed metal music emphasizes his every decisive action. His metaphoric stories are long and pointless, but when he snips your nose off with hedge trimmers, he’s short and to the point.

If only the magnetism of Hesher could expand to the other characters in the film. Because as sympathetic as a struggling Jr. Highschooler like T.J. is, he’s not all that interesting. It seems as though the script were written with little confidence in a child actor, who was, therefore, given very few lines to work with. T.J. bumbles and struggles along, and the only word he can find to express himself is “um…” While realistic to his age, T.J.’s ineffectualness competes with Hesher’s unique competence and as a result the movie feels uneven. Every scene without Hesher is a drag. Even Natalie Portman, playing an older grocery store clerk who befriends T.J., struggles with the material, which feels very scripted. The only character who can hold her own against Gordon-Levitt’s performance is Piper Laurie’s equally quirky aging grandmother, who also doesn’t get enough screen time.

As a character study, “Hesher” succeeds admirably. As a coming of age in a time of grief story, the film fails to connect to its main protagonist, forcing us to cheer for his nemesis.

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Directed and written: Spencer Susser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie, and Devin Brochu
100 min., USA

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