When it Rainns it pours. Sorry, I had to do it. When I looked at the lineup for the South by Southwest Film Festival this year, I immediately noted that two of my most anticipated films star Rainn Wilson: “Hesher” and “Super.” Each has been around for a while — the former premiered at Sundance ’10; the latter debuted at Toronto last fall — but they both seem best suited for the kids in Austin. They’re like grindhouse comic book movies. The sort featuring superheroes you’d like to drink a beer with. But you’ll settle for a pint at the Alamo Drafthouse while you simply observe their maniacally valiant spirit.
Technically, I guess the eponymous Hesher of Spencer Susser’s bold and awesome drama is neither super nor heroic in any traditional sense. Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, looking as antithetical to his straight-laced baby-faced boys in “(500) Days of Summer” and “Inception” with what would on anyone else look like a cliché headbanger Halloween costume (specifically one who prefers Motorhead), he’s more of a personal protector and guardian angel for a young boy (Devin Brochu) whose life and family needs some serious rescue following a recent tragedy.
At first when Hesher appears to the boy, it’s unclear if he’s even real or just a figment of T.J.’s imagination, sparked by trauma and a need for a friend/scapegoat. He’s equal parts Drop Dead Fred, Tyler Durden and Frank the Bunny from “Donnie Darko.” He literally invades the kid’s home and starts squatting there. Wilson plays T.J.’s extremely depressed father; Piper Laurie is the somewhat spacey grandma. Of course, they can see him too, but that would make sense. They need him as much as the boy does. I almost want to believe that Hesher is an illusion seen by everyone.
Add to those he appears to one hopelessly hapless supermarket checkout girl (Natalie Portman, doing the “ugly” thing), who also comes to the rescue of T.J. one day. She questions her own worth as a hero, though, admitting that her good deed was selfish, something to make herself feel and look good. She predictably comes between the boy and his new angel/devil hybrid, because Hesher seems to bring out the worst in people on the way to lifting them up. He’s like a domestic terrorist, with emphasis on the domestic.
The character could have been a total cartoon, and at times he is completely ridiculous, yet Gordon-Levitt plays him perfectly with clear signs of humanity. Though he takes much enjoyment in stirring things up, when things get real and emotional, you can tell he wonders if he’s gone too far, as Susser keeps on him in close-up to let us know he’s thinking, feeling. Surprisingly terrific, too, is Wilson, who displays more dramatic potential than we’ve ever seen in him before.
It’s too bad that subdued performance seems a fluke now that I’ve seen “Super,” in which he’s an idiot short-order cook turned masked crusader. Written and directed by James Gunn, who I’d been erroneously told returns to his Troma roots here for a gratuitously violent take on the comic book genre (at least Lloyd Kaufman shows up for a cameo), the movie pales too much in comparison to other recent equivalents like “Kick-Ass” and maybe even “Hobo With a Shotgun” (another SXSW ’11 selection). Also, I’m getting tired of these movies that ask, “why don’t real people become costumed heroes? After seeing the Slamdance documentary “Superheroes” (which I wish was at SXSW, too) that question is pretty much moot. Not only do real people become costumed heroes, some are as moronic — yet more lovably so — than the characters written for this.
Anyway, Wilson isn’t bad here; he’s just sort of like his character from “The Office,” only without the depth. And you never feel for his cause, which stems from his wife (Liv Tyler) leaving him for a drug kingpin (Kevin Bacon, doing his best Mark McGrath), or care if he succeeds in getting her back. Fortunately, “Super” does have a saving grace, and her name is Ellen Page. She’s downright terrible, enough to make you bang your head wondering how she’s an Oscar nominee, but she’s somehow both the worst and best thing about the movie, playing a comic geek who becomes the kid sidekick of Wilson’s Crimson Bolt (her uninspired name is Bolty). For the most part she’s overly spunky and obnoxious (and, no matter what any of my fellow critics say, not at all sexy), but she’s redeemed in a couple scenes I won’t spoil. I do still kind of want to recommend the film just for those bits alone, yet I must note Gunn should have cast Linda Cardellini (who shows up for a second) in the role even if she’s technically too old for it.
Maybe it’s just unfortunate that I saw “Super” after “Hesher.” Or after a number of other superhero movies that do the same sort of thing better and brassier. I would suggest not seeing it just after seeing “Hesher” while at SXSW, that’s for sure. A better companion for Susser’s film is Todd Rohal’s “The Catechism Cataclysm,” which goes more off the rails in an absurd, cartoonish fashion, yet it’s similarly got a heavy metal thing going on and also both films deal in stories going nowhere, specifically anecdotes. In “Hesher” these anecdotes are all uncertain metaphors, and I hope co-writers Susser and David Michod (of the also excellent “Animal Kingdom”) mean them to be as meaningless as the snakes and orgies of the stories told. I also hope Wilson realizes his responsibility to do better things with his newly evidenced range. I’m seeing “Peep World” soon, so I hope he’s great in that.