“Hesher” won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and it’s easy to see why. It’s one of the force-of-nature films that startle the viewer with larger-then-life characters. However, it’s not for everyone.
Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a stringy-haired, greasy, profane, pugnacious slacker with intentionally off-putting homemade tattoos, who happens to intersect with some very emotionally needy people. You can’t really say he redeems them, or transforms them. But you could definitely claim that nobody is quite the same afterwards.
TJ (Devin Brochu) is a little boy with a lot to deal with right now. His mother’s been killed in an automobile accident. His Dad, Paul, (Rainn Wilson), who was driving the car at the time, is such an emotional wreck that he’s just quit. He stays at home, takes pills, and sleeps all day on the couch. He’s unshaven and unkempt, has apparently stopped going to work, and has moved them into the house of his aging Mom, Madeleine (Piper Laurie), so she can cook meals and help enable him to do nothing. The wrecked family car sits out in front, a kind of jagged monument to the brokenness of their lives.
One morning, on the way to school, TJ sees the wrecked car being towed away, and he desperately follows the tow truck to a junk yard, where he tries to re-claim the car, but of course, he has no money, no driver’s license, and no proof of insurance. Still, he’s determined to find the money somehow. As if recovering the car would somehow help the family recover.
In his haste to get to school on time, he cuts through a construction site for new houses, and crashing over random debris, throws a rock through a window in anger. It so happens that particular empty house had a squatter living in it, Hesher, who’s then immediately in trouble with security, and blames TJ for “blowing his cover.” So later he shows up at TJ’s house and just starts using the washing machine. And just starts squatting there.
TJ, of course, is too little to stop him. His Dad is too out of it to care. His Grandmom is too ill to enforce anything, either, so Hesher winds up staying, and what we have here is a very odd family grouping. Hesher comes to the dinner table shirtless and cussing, and helps himself noisily. As if he never learned manners anywhere. He is, however, nice to Grandmom. As if she’s the only one not a threat.
TJ manages to get crossways with the kid at his school who works at the junkyard, and endures some humiliating harassment, which Hesher eventually notices, and unilaterally decides to escalate the conflict. Meanwhile, TJ has developed a crush on the young lady (“Don’t call me ‘lady’, it makes me feel old”) at the local grocery, Nicole (Natalie Portman). It turns out that she’s just as needy, because she drives an old jalopy, can’t keep up with her rent, and apparently has no one to help look out for her. Lots of lonely, isolated, angry people here. And we can’t help but hope that somehow they can find a way to help each other, even though none has any relational skill, and all need help that they don’t know how to ask for.
Many viewers will be off-put by the random violence, the pervasive cursing (especially coming from the little kid), the general despair, and the lack of any hero to root for here. But those who are willing to avail themselves emotionally will find a unique film of depth and contrast. And a funeral oration like none you’ve ever heard.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas