Directed by Spencer Susser
Starring Devin Brochu, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rain Wilson
The Last Picture Company
The 90s was a strange decade, known for producing two things in particular (where America is concerned anyway). The first is some of the finest Saturday morning cartoons ever conceived by man (I mean Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, need I say more) and Angry Young Men. The young men (and women) who were coming into adulthood in the 90s were best described by Tyler Durden as the middle children of history.
The roles of those who came before them seemed so clear. Their grandparents were the hero-gods of WW2. Hard to live up to that, and while some of their parents tried to replicate that glory with disastrous results, many others spent their time spreading peace, love and LSD. Just ask poor Hunter Thompson how that went. So what was the new generation to do? Can’t be heroes, can’t be hippies. What else is there to be but really pissed off?
Thus was born what seemed like the most angst-ridden generation yet. This was the generation of grunge, of Nirvana. A generation angry at the world and not afraid to show it. But now in the 2000s, things have mellowed out a bit. The anger has faded, but at same time the sense of insecurity about our place in the world and how to express ourselves has seemingly grown all the worse. But the anger of the 90s is coming back with a vengeance in Hesher, the first film by director Spencer Susser.
Despite the title, the main character of the piece is actually TJ (Devin Brochu), a young boy living with his father and grandmother in the wake of his mother’s tragic death. Both TJ and his father Paul (Rainn Wilson) are in a deep depression, unsure of how and/or unwilling to advance their lives beyond the current stage. They avoid confrontation whenever possible and take little or no action to improve their situation.
Enter Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), seemingly a man out of time. His hair falls in greasy black locks, when he can be bothered to wear a shirt it’s long-sleeved flannel, he swears like a sailor and plays the guitar. He is the Angry Young Man personified, hating everyone and everything he sees and reacting with violence to it most of the time. After a chance encounter, Hesher imposes himself on T.J’s home and life, bringing havoc and change with him.
While Paul and TJ resist conflict, Hesher meets it head on and unthinkingly. Where they are inactive, he is pro-active. Rounding out the cast Nicole, a girl TJ meets and develops a crush on. She also seems to embody the uncertainty so prevalent in modern youths, a fragile ball of nerves who questions her every action.
Hesher is the opposite of this as well. He never questions his actions or thinks twice, though he does have the good sense to regret and even apologize once when his antics go too far. When Hesher impacts the lives of these three characters, he brings something they do not have to the table: the will and confidence to act.
At first glance, Hesher seems like some violent, hate filled Mary Poppins, dispensing cryptic wisdom (though in the form of lewd anecdotes) and inciting change in a stagnant world. He is not some wise, all knowing guru from a previous time however. This isn’t one of those movies about how “things were better in the old days.”
While the fault of most of the cast is lack of will to move forward, Hesher acts with such abandon that he often creates more problems than he solves. He is just as flawed a character as the others, but for entirely different reasons. While they lack the will to act, he lacks the capacity to consider the ramifications of his actions. While they over-think, he most often never thinks at all. It is because of this that the film dodges being preachy in any way. This is not a denouncement of the current state of things and a glorification of older times, it’s much more complex than that.
The acting is superb. Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to have finally been given a chance to unleash his inner headbanger (this is the guy who flipped Conan O’Brien’s table after all) and he owns the role, bringing depth and complexity to what could have been a quirky one-off character. Rainn Wilson continues to showcase an almost supernatural skill at portraying the clinically depressed, a talent he previously displayed in Super. Natalie Portman is also terrific, but this is the kind of role she’s honed to a fine art: the quirky, impossibly cute girl next door.
But the real star is newcomer Devin Brochu in the role of TJ. Child actors have a notoriety for being hit or miss, they’re either Jake Lloyd or Dakota Fanning. This young man is absolutely a Dakota Fanning, and my that sounds kind of weird doesn’t it? Like a seasoned actor, he is able to convey with facial expressions what normal actors could barely express in a paragraph of dialogue, bringing the sadness of loss and loneliness of his character into soul-crushing life.
Screen veteran Piper Laurie (“pimples are the Lord’s way of chastising you”) rounds out the cast as TJ’s often oblivious grandmother, and one scene she shares with Hesher is easily one of the best of the film.
The film isn’t 100 % perfect, with stylistic elements dropping in and out somewhat sporadically and the occasional bit of wonky editing. Like the title character, it may be rough around the edges and sometimes obscure in what it’s trying to say, but still leaves a powerful and lasting impression. I highly recommend this movie, in fact it was in my top ten movies of 2011. It’s out on DVD now and you should definitely check it out.