REVIEW: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Runs the Show in Flimsy Hesher

Movieline Score: 6

One of the two interesting questions posed in Hesher is whether the title character of Spencer Susser's aggro stomp through the seven stages of grief is beyond metaphor or metaphor is beyond him. Evidence for the latter is ample: Less a human being than a set of sloppy impulses, he speaks directly but strictly in assorted vulgarities, oblivious to behavioral or conversational nuances that lay outside his basic instincts. And yet the world he invades -- a home that seems lodged in standing water, and the lives of its three grieving inhabitants -- accommodates more than one literary device, and the script points directly to metaphor and our ability to grasp it several times. Susser alternates between floating the possibility of Hesher as an enlightening, instructive force, Mary Poppins-style, and yanking him down to Earth, where he's simply a strutting, sickening id at large.

Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a heavy curtain of kinky black hair and a torso that seems marked by a night spent at the mercy of sharpie-wielding seventh graders, Hesher is a California drifter, a headbanger whose speech is occasionally punctuated by death metal blasts. Thirteen-year-old TJ (Devin Brochu) inadvertently summons him by whipping a rock through the window of the half-finished house where he's squatting. Luck-wise it's another in a recent streak of spectacular wipe outs: TJ's mother is two months dead, in his desperation to wrest the car in which she died back from the junkyard he draws the ire of a vicious classmate, and even his bike seems determined to throw him over its bars. At home, TJ's father Paul (Rainn Wilson, moving in a tough part) is catatonic, and his grandmother (Piper Laurie), despite her vague, imploring pleasantries, doesn't seem to have changed caftans since the Carter administration.

Into this mild abyss crashes Hesher, who stalks TJ for several days before stripping down to his scummy underpants (after all, even he has to do laundry sometimes) and plopping down in the family's living room. The length at which Susser lingers on them suggests we are meant to be impressed by Hesher's audacity and intrigued by his disgusting habits. But even Gordon-Levitt's slightly inverted charisma can't save the character from the ultimate opacity -- and banality -- of his nihilism. Susser hedges the idea of Hesher as metaphor, risking our safety and comfort to take us someplace new. But the ride is tiring, and one by one the wheels start to come off, and before it's over you're working on your own metaphors for when the film fell apart instead of cleaving to those Susser is half-committing to the screen.

Which brings me to the second interesting question -- that of what Natalie Portman was thinking. Her role as a timid, frizzy-banged grocery clerk who fends off TJ's bully and wins his love seems another in Portman's post-Oscar victory lap of every movie set in the Western Hemisphere. In fact she is also a producer of Hesher; it is the first of her new company's films. It's not too tough to see what might have drawn a producer to the project: The story's mix of the mythical and the mundane has become an indie staple, and Hesher's edge might have proved artful instead of shredding everything in its path. For any actress, however, the part of Nicole is embarrassingly thin. She's one of two women in the film, and the other is grandma Madonna, so I'll let you guess where Nicole winds up in TJ's estimation.

The diminutive, open-faced Brochu conveys an affecting combination of vulnerability and rage; his blankness in crisis feels true, as do his sudden bursts of violence. Disappointed by his ineffectual father and overwhelmed by Hesher's potency, TJ is in between in more ways than one. But small truths can't survive in a narrative vacuum, much less a story that shares oxygen with a shirtless pyro with an unlikely soft spot for old ladies. Hesher had its best shot as a gnarly coming-of-age tale, a young man's hazing half-dreamed by grief. Susser offers glimpses of that vision, but despite taking care to shoot from TJ's perspective, it is Hesher who dominates, and Hesher who drags the film around the screen by its scruff, his bare feet pounding.