This review originally appeared as part of a badly titled joint-review of “Hesher” and “Super” posted for the 2011 SXSW Film Festival.
“Hesher” is like a grindhouse comic book movie, the sort featuring a superhero you’d rather go drinking with than let help your granny across the street (in order to be compensated with some of her medical marijuana, probably). Technically, the eponymous character of Spencer Susser’s bold and awesome drama (co-written by “Animal Kingdom” director David Michod) 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 Motörhead), 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. Rainn 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. Hopefully Wilson realizes his responsibility to do better things with this newly evidenced range.
“Hesher” opens in limited release today.
Recommended If You Like: “Fight Club”; “Suburbia” (Spheeris); “Animal Kingdom”