A strange person inserts himself into the life of a dysfunctional family, at first seeming to be a hindrance, but time soon reveals that perhaps they have actually been sent there by fate, to help the family work out their issues. It’s certainly not a new formula, but – as I’ve said before – if movies like Drive, Hanna, Warrior and the Lincoln Lawyer have taught us anything this year, it’s that the old formulas can still make good movies when done right. And in this case, I think having your titular character be a burnt-out, long-haired, tattooed, anarchist metalhead played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt definitely counts as “doing it right.”

Devin Brochu plays a TJ, a young boy still reeling from the death of his mother a couple months ago. He’s at least handling it a tad better than his father, who now spends all his time sleeping on the couch and taking numerous prescription meds (the dad is played by Rainn Wilson, who between this and Super seems to concentrating his down-time from The Office on darker-themed indie fare…probably a wise move after the failure of The Rocker). The two have moved into the home of TJ’s grandmother’s (Piper Laurie), and their lifestyle just barely counts as “getting by.”

One day, TJ has a chance encounter with the aforementioned Hesher, who instantly starts making TJ’s life hell just – it seems – for the sheer fun of messing with him. Eventually, Hesher shows up at the grandma’s house and, despite TJ’s protests, simply moves himself in, not thinking twice about walking around the place in his underwear or swearing up a storm in front of grandma. TJ is at a loss to explain Hesher’s presence to his family, but soon the grandma and father just come to accept his being there – much more so than TJ, in fact, who still can’t understand Hesher’s apparent glee with making his life miserable and indifference towards helping him when he needs it (when he walks in on TJ being brutalized by a bully, Hesher simply turns and goes the other way). A potential method to Hesher’s madness starts to reveal itself, however, when he at least helps TJ spend some time with Nicole (Natalie Portman), a mousy grocery clerk he has a crush on. Is Hesher actually trying to help TJ move past the grief of his mother’s death, or does he really just not give a damn about anything?

One of the things I liked most about Hesher is how little effort it spends trying to actually answer that question. For the majority of the film, Hesher really is just presented as a mysterious destructive force (we are told almost nothing about the character’s past, and the small bits we DO get don’t really reveal anything about where he came from or who he is as a person). He’s just this strange asshole who plants himself into the lives of these people, and almost anything good that comes of it seems to be by coincidence or accident. Unfortunately, the movie can’t quite resist the more-obvious path of slightly redeeming Hesher and making its message more clear, so the third act goes a little too far (in my opinion) of suggesting that Hesher has actually started to care about the family and is trying to help him in his own odd way. I think I would have preferred if that had been left more up in the air the whole time, but oh well.

The best thing about Hesher, as you would expect in a movie with a fairly unoriginal story, is the performances. Wilson, Portman, Laurie and Brochu all do very good work, but obviously the star of the show is Gordon-Levitt, who is just awesome in this. Hesher is one of the funniest characters I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time, and even when the movie works at little too hard at redeeming him, Gordon-Levitt still infuses him with enough of a mischievous “I don’t give a fuck” quality that he never fully loses his edge. I’d gladly watch a dozen more Hesher movies, with him just inserting himself into more situations where he doesn’t belong (imagine Hesher somehow getting wrapped up in a murder investigation).

I can see this movie’s intentionally quirky, clearly-indie-sensibilities turning off some people who have grown tired of those sorts of movies. Heck, I’m usually right there with those people. But I’d suggest they give it a chance, because this IS one of those cases where the performances definitely save an otherwise unremarkable film. Anyone who considers themselves a Gordon-Levitt fan, in particular, needs to watch this one, as this is easily the most unique character he has played yet, and serves as further indication of his already formidable talent and the amazing career he almost certainly has in store for us.



This review was originally posted at Trevor Likes Movies on October 1st, 2011.