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Friday, June 24, 2011
Growing pains soothed by the power of metal
What would happen if Megadeath decided to record an emo album? The answer may be something like "Hesher," which features an almost Cro-Magnon sort of misanthropic metalhead hero who likes nothing but shredding, shagging, smoking dope and smashing things, but who, it turns out, will teach his straighter friends some life-affirming lessons.
"Hesher" is the debut of director Spencer Susser, and he's got some pretty good star power for a first film: Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Inception," "Mysterious Skin") plays the aforementioned headbanger, looking like a younger Rob Zombie with his lank greasy hair and tasteless tattoos, while Natalie Portman appears as — get this — a frumpy superstore checkout girl, which is a bit of a stretch.
The story centers around a tween boy named T.J. (Devin Brochu) who has just lost his mother in a car accident. T.J.'s father (Rainn Wilson, "Juno") has sunk into a medicated depression, his grandmother (Piper Laurie, "Twin Peaks") is kindhearted but a bit senile, and he's bullied at school by a nasty punk (Brendan Hill) who sticks his head in the toilet. T.J. is not a happy camper, and things get worse when he stumbles across Hesher, a twenty-something homeless lout who pretty much invades T.J.'s home and camps out in the garage.
T.J. is in awe of Hesher's total independence and pure menace, but he hates the guy, too; Hesher just stands by and watches when he finds T.J. getting beaten up, and his penchant for extreme vandalism lands the boy in deep trouble. Does Hesher just not give a damn, or is he trying to toughen up the kid? This is in contrast to Nicole (Portman), an insecure cashier who nevertheless finds the strength to put up her fists and protect T.J. when she sees him being bullied. T.J. develops a crush on the much older girl, but is disturbed to find Hesher also hovering around her.
Susser does a good job of establishing his characters and letting them bounce off each other without telegraphing where all this is going. Adding to this is Gordon-Levitt's performance, which gives off a strong scent of the feral. For as long as we don't know where Hesher is coming from, and he's walking the line between threat, mental patient and big brother, the film is excellent; the more we figure him out, though, the more he becomes just a one-note joke and stereotype. I mean, giving Granny a bong hit? How Beavis and Butt-head is that?
But it's a credit to the film — and especially its cast — that it can take such a moment and make something out of it. While trading hits on Gran's medical marijuana is a joke, the bond we sense between the two characters is not, and Laurie and Gordon-Levitt give a silly scene some real emotional depth.
"Hesher" stands in opposition to the modern American obsession with pop-psych, and the rather misguided idea that endlessly talking about one's feelings will help one deal with them. T.J.'s father stands as an example of this approach's failure: He forces his son to go to group therapy, only to watch the boy resentfully retreat further into himself. (Dad himself is popping Prozac to deal with his grief.)
T.J.'s grandmother has much greater success in forming a bond with Hesher, by ignoring his F-bombs and loutish behavior — and the reasons behind them — and just dealing with him as is. Kindness, in itself, is the best therapy.
Some have complained that Hesher is a cartoonish sterotype of a metalhead (he would hardly be the first on the big screen). Susser, however, claims to have partly modeled Hesher on Metallica's original bassist, Cliff Burton (who died in a tour-bus accident in 1986). Metallica songs are all over the soundtrack, and the band — notoriously protective of their music — happily cooperated with the film; if it's good enough for James Hetfield and co., I'd wager most headbangers will buy it.