April 15, 2013

Outsiders Marathon: Hesher (2010)

Joseph Gordon Levitt in Hesher

I’m closing out this marathon with a smaller film that shows a family dealing with a massive tragedy. That’s only part of the story, however. Spencer Susser’s Hesher also presents us with a title character that seems to exist in his own universe. Unlike the outsiders from the past three weeks, there aren’t clear factors that pushed him to step away from society. This under-seen film earned little at the box office but has gained a reputation as being a hidden gem from some ardent fans. One of the main factors is seeing Joseph Gordon Levitt in a much different role than his normal characters. Hesher is far from a straight-arrow guy and creates fireworks in almost every situation. This is the first feature for Susser, and he gives Levitt free reign to try anything. The question is whether this freedom benefits the movie. 

Rainn Wilson in Hesher

What's this story about?
T.J. (Devin Brochu) is a high-school freshman dealing with the recent death of his mom in a car accident. His father Paul (Rainn Wilson) has completely shut down and spends his days motionless on the couch. Support comes from his grandmother (Piper Laurie), but there’s only much that she can do. By chance, he encounters Hesher (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a loner who rarely wears a shirt and enjoys blaring heavy metal. Without asking, he moves into their garage and starts wreaking havoc. T.J. strikes up a friendship with Nicole (Natalie Portman), a grocery-store cashier struggling to stay afloat. His life is falling apart, and he’s searching for something positive amid the sadness at every corner. 

How is the main character an outsider?
T.J. is a small guy, even for a high-school freshman, so it’s not a surprise that he’s bullied at school. When you factor in the fact that his life’s in disarray after his mom’s death, he’s clearly sliding away from society. The film opens with T.J. rapidly following a tow truck that’s removing their car. It’s badly damaged and holds terrible memories, so it’s clear why it needs to go away. Even so, T.J. spends tremendous effort trying to retrieve it. It’s his last connection to his mom, but the erratic behavior just pushes him further towards the edge. A guy like Hesher is more of an outsider on the surface, but he barely cares what anyone thinks of him. It’s different for the young T.J., who’s so emotionally invested in his quest that he doesn’t realize what he’s losing in the process.

Joseph Gordon Levitt in Hesher

What external forces (if any) have created this isolation?
T.J.’s isolation is coming from two different forces, his crippled home life and Hesher. His dad is so lifeless that he doesn’t object when the unknown guy joins the family. In a strange way, Hesher is helping T.J. to think about something different than his mom. Even so, that’s hardly his primary goal. He’s mostly just messing around and watching the chaos. He goes beyond what others will do and then watches as anarchy ensues. Meanwhile, T.J. is repeatedly injured by crashing into cars and nearly getting crushed at a junkyard. That kid really needs a bike helmet. For the audience, it’s hard to know who to identify with as the mess keeps growing. T.J. is probably a good kid, but it’s hard to really connect to his stubborn behavior. Hesher is a silly character because he disregards so many societal conventions. The tricky part is finding something to like beyond his willingness to go so far.

Do the situations feel authentic and natural for the environment?
While certain events are outlandish, the story remains grounded because the actors sell the material. Rainn Wilson gets little to do as the grieving dad, but he’s believable given the awful circumstances. Natalie Portman hides behind glasses and unflattering clothes, but it works. The challenge is making Hesher’s antics not devolve into silliness. When he climbs up an electric pole and fixes the cable so he can watch porn, it feels straight out of a goofy comedy. The first hour pushes the envelope as he continues to dupe T.J. and go out of control. Where the story falls short is when it tries to rein in Hesher and make him redeeming. He plays a key role in their recovery, which is expected from the start. Even so, it doesn’t seem to fit with everything that makes him such a memorable guy.

Natalie Portman in Hesher

What themes are being tackled by the director with these outsiders?
Spencer Susser is part of the Australian group Blue-Tongue Films, which includes David Michôd (Animal Kingdom). He’s an American but clearly has a different perspective than your typical indie filmmaker. His offbeat approach for Hesher shifts quickly between drama and comedy, and those moves can be jarring. Even so, he’s clearly an artist to watch in the near future. Hesher doesn’t completely work and meanders at times, but it shows plenty of promise. He’s looking at outsiders facing a tragedy without taking pity on the subjects. T.J. and Paul need to step up and get on with their lives. Hesher’s big speech makes that point with a bizarre analogy, yet it strikes the right chord for this entertaining project.

6 comments:

  1. I think you're very spot on. It switches strangely between comedy and drama and the fact that Hesher is so unsympathetic at times makes it hard to root for it. This keeps the movie from being as great as it might have been. It shows promise.

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    1. Jessica, I agree that the potential is there and it works in certain places. It just didn't hit on all cylinders like it could have. Congrats on the Lammy nominations! Well-deserved!

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  2. I disagree, of course, and think this film does reach greatness. To me, this is a very literary movie. It plays much more like a book than a film in that Hesher is more of a mythical god, almost, coming down to screw with these people but also show them the right way through his chaos. Hesher doesn't really exist in the real world but is more of an outside force that interferes with a story completely unrelated to him. Though to me, it's clear pretty early he wants to help these people and set them straight. Everything he does is his way of slapping sense into them or trying to help, even if it's an extreme. So the ending doesn't shoehorn in his sudden character change, at least not to me. It was always there, and it evolved best in relation with the grandmother. And his final "Hesher was Here" isn't just a last bit of anarchy, but rather a mark on the family that he was there and he's moved on to the next group of people to "help."

    Maybe it's because I come from a big literary background, but I *really* connected with this movie and these characters and how everything was portrayed, and never did I find it slow or meandering or having any kind of offkilter tonal shifts.

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    1. Nick, I knew this was coming, and I'm glad to hear your thoughts. You make good points about the literary background and Hesher's role in the story in that context. One of my undergrad majors was English with a focus on literature, but I didn't grab that part of it as much when I watched Hesher.

      I did take his "Hesher was Here" note as a mark that he'd changed their life. However, I felt that it went along more with the final-act shift than his approach at the start. Going through a lot of his early actions, do they really help T.J.? I feel like many of them just make things more difficult. If you think of him as the outside force that's using unconventional methods to help the family right away, it makes sense. I just wasn't as engaged by that feeling until the end. I did like it overall and would give it 3/5 stars if I was rating it. I just wasn't as thrilled by every element. Thanks for the detailed comment!

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    2. Oh, I can agree that his approach at the beginning was extreme and did more harm than good. He tried to take this extreme "tough love" approach to try and have the kid, in particular, solve his own issues and fight his own fights. But I see the shift more like this... yes he's trying to help the whole time, whether or not his methods are effective. But (SPOILERS) when the one person he actually cares about dies, and the family still can't seem to pull themselves together, he finally has to just step up and give them an emotional and verbal smackdown rather than just attempt another "passive" approach (not helping the kid fight, setting the car on fire, etc.).

      Though I can understand not really digging every part of it or having difficulty grasping on to a character.

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    3. I will say that the connection between Hesher and the grandmother (Catherine from Twin Peaks!) was one of the best parts of the movie. She sees what's happening to the family but just keeps plugging away while the others fall apart.

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