Review: Hesher (Sundance)
PLOT: A thirteen-year old boy named T.J (Devin Brochu), who recently lost his mother, accidentally causes the eviction of a squatter named Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Not having a place to stay, Hesher- a heavily tattooed loner, imposes himself on T.J's family; consisting of his grieving father (Rainn Wilson), who's too depressed to care about his new house guest, and his daffy, half-senile grandmother (Piper Laurie).
REVIEW: HESHER is exactly the kind of film I was hoping I'd see at Sundance. It's unconventional, edgy, and manages to accomplish something it seems can only be pulled off by taking the indie route; it successfully merges comedy and drama.
HESHER is a film that's very difficult to classify and I think that's why it may rub some people the wrong way, as it's a tough film to pin down. By reading the plot outline, you might think it sounded like Will Ferrell should be playing the title role, and if this had gone the studio route, that's probably what would have happened. With Levitt, you get a much more complex character. At times in the film, he comes across as a total asshole, with him bullying T.J, and even threatening to cut his nose off at one point. Later in the film, you can tell that Hesher is starting to like the boy, but things never get saccharine or predictable, as the character never loses his edge, which would have been eliminated in any big studio film.
This is perfectly summed up by one scene, where Hesher meets Natalie Portman, who plays a supermarket cashier T.J is infatuated with. He rescues her from an angry driver during a fender bender she accidentally causes and Hesher takes the three of them out for the standard indie 'getting to know you' ice cream. This is all very charming (perhaps too much so), when all of a sudden, Hesher convinces them to break into an open house. The three of them spend some time lounging by the pool, talking about life, until, all of a sudden, Hesher decides to trash the pool, set the backyard on fire, and then ditch Portman and the kid so that they have to deal with the cops, fire dept, etc.
If this film manages to breakout when it finally gets a general release, I could see this being an iconic role for Levitt. He's one of those guys who, over the last few years, has really started to come into his own, giving a series of impressive performances in films like MYSTERIOUS SKIN, MANIC, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, STOP-LOSS. Levitt's incredible is this, which is a big change of pace from 500 DAYS, and goes a long way toward demonstrating his versatility. His foul mouthed HESHER is an incredible creation, and some of his lines (particularly his climatic monologue about his testicles), are pure gold, and sure to become oft-quoted.
The film also benefits from a strong supporting cast. Young Brochu hits all the right notes as T.J, making the kid instantly likable, and personable. Ditto Portman, although she's probably a bit too beautiful to be playing a mousy supermarket cashier (she also co-produced the film). Piper Laurie is fantastic as T.J's semi-senile, and kindly Grandmother, and her referral to marijuana as “medical cigarettes” is classic.
As good as they all are, the person in the film (other than Levitt) who really blew me away was Rainn Wilson. Anyone who loves Wilson as Dwight on THE OFFICE, prepare yourselves, as than man's downright brilliant in the role, which is about as far removed from Dwight as you can get. His character is probably the most tortured person in the film, with him pretty much giving up on life after his wife dies and some of climactic scenes with Brochu are revelatory, if all you've ever seen Wilson in is THE OFFICE. He's so good in the film that I think he'd even be worthy of a best supporting actor Oscar nomination; although this all hinges on whether or not the film gets picked up by a distributor and actually gets seen.
Despite a few negative reviews from the trades, and some bad buzz from the older generation of critics, I still think HESHER has what it takes to become a mainstream success. The younger generation of critics at Sundance (myself included) all seemed to love it, and I have a feeling that it'll really connect with a lot of my fellow JoBlo schmoes. It's a great flick, and one one that hopefully everyone will get the chance to see soon.