So Tell Me About Hesher: A Movieline FAQ

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The world premiere of Hesher hit Sundance on Friday, and I do mean "hit": Joseph Gordon-Levitt's stringy-haired, chain-smoking, tatted-up anarchist title punk went trashing and crashing every situation pertaining to the film's young protagonist T.J. (Devin Brochu). From invading the boy's school to moving into his house to working out his crushes, no scenario was left unturned. And then flipped. And possibly lit on fire. But was it any good? The answer to that question and others as another Movieline FAQ (which naturally includes some spoilers) continues after the jump.

What's Hesher about?

Ultimately, it's just another Sundance film about the fractiousness of family and the dramatic confrontations that wind up mending them. This time around we've a more intense, violent, almost fantastical variation on this model, with 13-year-old T.J. Forney, his father Paul (Rainn Wilson), and his grandmother (Piper Laurie) lost in a squalid fog following the death of T.J.'s mother. One day, in a delinquent fit of pique, T.J. smashes a window in a new home subdivision where a sinewy, shirtless freak happens to live. This is Hesher (Gordon-Levitt), who corrals T.J only to let him go, and then only to follow him to school and invade his house. They're not quite friends, but T.J.'s fascination with Hesher's fury and rootlessness influences the boy to his adopt his own new manners of recklessness. Among them: Stalking grocery checkout girl Nicole (Natalie Portman), who saved him from a bully and on whom he develops a crush. The interweaving of these relationships -- and their grave impact on T.J. -- composes the bulk of the action. (T.J.'s obsession with a wrecked Jeep Cherokee makes up the rest; it all ties together neatly and sensitively in the end.)

Fine, fine. Is it any good?

Sort of? Director Spencer Susser is an inarguable talent, setting up a first act that keenly balances Hesher's kinetic rage with the inertia of the Forney household. The whole film mines modes of destruction -- shattered glass, rended flesh, shredded bonds -- with aplomb, but to what end? (Not to answer your question with a question.) There really is no story here apart from the developing relationship between T.J. and Hesher, and then T.J. and Nicole, but the boy isn't really given anything to do but creep and brood and seethe and thrash. (And when the T.J.-Hesher-Nicole relationship merges in a third-act love triangle? Forget about it.) Everyone's clearly doing the best they can with what they have, and Wilson in particular -- marvelously subdued by grief anchored in a potent cocktail of antidepressants and helplessness -- provides much of the magnetic presence Hesher forfeits with its aimless leads. That said, the climax is affecting in completely unexpected ways. If Susser could just rework those middle 30 minutes, or at least tamp down the whole slice-of-life, short films-glued-together feel, he might really have something.

What is a "Hesher," anyway?

It's a species of loser very close to the one Gordon-Levitt portrays, according to one source: "Long haired, usually mulleted person who listens and rocks out to Metal or Thrash music. Generally seen wearing acid-washed jeans, leather motorcycle or denim jacket covered with band and skull patches. Will often have a Molester Moustache."

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What inspired the character of Hesher?

I'll leave that one to Susser, who explained in the Q&A follwing the screening: "A lot of things, actually. Part of him was based on someone that I had known growing up. I sort of took his back story; he was a friend of mine. He was a troubled kid, and his parents weren't really looking after him. He got into a lot of trouble at school, and eventually he went to live with his grandmother -- a very different grandmother than the one in the film. But his grandmother didn't want to look after this troubled teenage grandson. They hated each other. Eventually she died, and he had nobody. I sort of imagined, 'What happens to someone like that?' I thought he was probably hurt so bad -- his parents don't want him, nobody wants him. And he says, 'You know what? I don't want friends. I don't family. I just never want to be hurt.' And so I imagine Hesher is someone like that: He's just never interested in being hurt, really. So he's put up these walls to protect himself, and through his relationship with T.J. and the family, he all of the sudden has family and friends and all of the sudden he's vulnerable again."

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