2011, R, 105 min. Directed by Spencer Susser. Starring Devin Brochu, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie, John Carroll Lynch.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 13, 2011

Hesher, the nihilistic character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is the antidote for what ails this movie’s dysfunctional family. The character is designed to be pure id – a snarling, half-dressed squatter bearing ominous tattoos on his torso. Inked across his chest is the image of a stick figure shooting itself in the head, and an impudently raised middle finger glowers from his back. Hesher is trouble with a capital "T," and arrives as mysteriously as he departs. T.J. (Brochu) is a boy who still deeply grieves the death of his mother in a car accident two months earlier. Apart from his irrational quest to hold onto the mangled remains of the car, T.J. could be said to be adequately coping with his sadness. Not so his father, Paul (Wilson), however, whose regimen of pills and self-pity barely allows him to function. They live with T.J.’s grandmother (Laurie), who sees to their basic needs for food and shelter. Then Hesher moves in, and before long, he’s stealing cable TV (and porn) from the poles outside, teaching Granny to smoke her medicinal marijuana from a bong, and moving in on the nice woman at the grocery store on whom T.J. is kind of sweet. This dysfunctional family is the sort that practically screams “indie drama,” so viewing Hesher as its anarchic antidote has meta implications beyond the fates of these particular individuals. The film will likely have more appeal to younger viewers who profess little affection for this stratum of film narrative. Curiously, however, Hesher’s anti-narrative stance leaves us with a central character who makes little psychological sense. He may be id personified, but everything about Hesher’s countenance screams baggage galore. Co-written by director Susser with David Michôd (Animal Kingdom), Hesher takes a strangely sentimental turn at the end wherein slo-mo shots, a tender gesture, and a simplistic metaphor about seeing life as either a glass half-full or half-empty (although Hesher’s example uses a rude anatomical reference instead of glassware) threaten to overwhelm the uncompromising nature of everything that has preceded them. Side plots concerning a bully who continually picks on T.J. and Paul’s wish for his son to attend grief-counseling therapy with him are unnecessary bits of business that lead nowhere. The performances are all top-notch here, especially those of Laurie as the doddering grandma and Gordon-Levitt, who executes another riveting characterization. Yet, Hesher is a muddle of inchoate feelings that never really grasps the clichés to which it raises its middle finger.

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