Before we’ve become fully aware of the tragedy that has befallen young T.J. (Devin Brochu)—his mother has died, his pop (Rainn Wilson) has become a pill-popping troglodyte, and they’ve had to move in with his not-all-there grandma (Piper Laurie)—in steps Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Long-haired, perpetually shirtless, cigarettes eternally fuming from his mouth, the titular metalhead of Spencer Susser’s Sundance fave is a mysterious force, appearing from nowhere and for no apparent reason.
Bucking indie film cliches, he’s not there to help T.J.; indeed, among his first acts is to hit the adorable moppet with his truck. Later, when bullies assault him in the school bathroom, Hesher appears, only to leave without helping. Soon, and without asking permission, he’s installed himself in the family house and unscrambled the porn station. He’s belligerent, unencouragingly hostile and seemingly quasi-magical—kicks to the groin cause minimal damage and he’s prone to sudden, unexpected moments of kindness before returning, just as whimsically, to wanton destruction.
In short, Hesher is a great character, and is superbly embodied by Gordon-Levitt in a performance that’s as enjoyable to watch as it doubtless was to play. And if you’re a weathered viewer of Amerindie cinema, such anarchic invention only means that the other shoe will eventually drop. And drop it does: After a hilarious first half, one that very nearly plays as a brutal parody of quirky grief-management indies, the film becomes the very embodiment of quirky grief-management indies. Hesher himself goes from larger-than-life human maelstrom to a character who realizes the dark side of his actions, notably banging T.J.’s little boy crush, a down-on-her-luck supermarket clerk played by Natalie Portman (semi-recognizable behind grandma glasses).
And from there it’s not long before what began as delightfully mordant absurdism has made the epic voyage to an entirely sincere megadrama, complete with blasted sad music over slo-mo funeral scenes. Hesher is worth a spin for its anarchic first half and for-the-books lead turn. Should you find yourself prematurely eyeing the exits, you may not want to hesitate.