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Movie Review

Hesher

Heavy metal mentor: ‘Hesher’ mixes grief and mystery after a death in a family

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 13, 2011

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Those of us who are members of the Joseph Gordon-Levitt Fan Club — and we are anonymous but many — are in for a body blow with his title performance in “Hesher.’’ Here’s that nice young man from “Brick’’ and “(500) Days of Summer,’’ the actor who quietly put “Inception’’ in his pocket and walked away with it, and he looks like every mother’s worst nightmare. The stringy hair, the home-brewed tattoos, the mind-bogglingly filthy anecdotes that start and stop with no warning, a preference for tighty-whities and nothing else — Hesher is either a walking id or Jesus Christ returned to earth as a headbanger.

It’s a fearsome and giddily unhinged performance in a movie that isn’t entirely sure what to do with it. In every other respect, “Hesher’’ is a tamped-down independent film about loss in the wastelands of Los Angeles. The central character, T.J. (Devin Brochu), is a 10-year-old boy whose mother has recently died in a car crash and whose father (Rainn Wilson) has sunk into a hole of grief in the couch. The kid’s on his own — school is a minefield of bullies, and Grandma (Piper Laurie) drifts more than she used to — until he breaks a window in an abandoned house and Hesher charges through the door like a summoned-up demon. It’s a genuinely startling appearance, not unlike Isabella Rossellini materializing naked on the lawn in “Blue Velvet.’’

Is Hesher for real? A figment of T.J.’s damaged imagination? Other people can see him — once he moves in, Hesher and Grandma strike up a rather sweet friendship of nostalgia and four-letter words — but his way of showing up at exactly the right/wrong moments in the boy’s life suggests a more unearthly predisposition. He’s a grubby, freewheeling Puck, in both the Shakespearean and MTV senses, roaming the open roads in a crap-brown van and looking for souls to save and unsettle.

It’s just that Hesher’s style of life-coaching is a little unortho dox, involving as it does blowing up cars in people’s driveways. Gordon-Levitt gives the character some of the dry, semi-comic thoughtfulness he brings to other roles, and that gap between detachment and overkill can be explosively funny. Hesher’s a logical anarchist.

But everyone is repressed in this movie except the title character. As the father, Wilson valiantly turns down his comic impulses to zero, and the legendary Laurie portrays a woman who has come to terms with a lifetime of disappointment. Natalie Portman shows up as a sad little supermarket checkout clerk who becomes T.J.’s crush and the object of Hesher’s leers, and while the actress tries to hide her glamour under the bushel of indie realism, it’s a losing battle.

Director-cowriter Spencer Susser is the sole American member of the Australian collective Blue Tongue Films, but he shares with David Michôd (“Animal Kingdom’’) and the Edgerton brothers (“The Square’’) an interest in aggro male behavior amid bland, washed-out settings. To his credit, he doesn’t leave much room for sentiment in the relationship between Hesher and T.J. The kid is rightly frightened of his demented mentor, and the point may be that any emotion, fear included, is preferable to being uncomfortably numb.

I’d even argue that Brochu gives the trickier, more subtle performance as a child who has lost all faith with the world yet still tries to make it through the day. Gordon-Levitt, by contrast, soars on fumes of invention and absurdity. Because he’s a gracious actor as well as a good one, he makes sure we have almost as high a time as he’s having.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

HESHER

Directed by: Spencer Susser

Written by: Susser, David Michôd, Brian Charles Frank

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie

At: Boston Common, Kendall Square, suburbs

Running time: 100 minutes

Rated: R (disturbing violent behavior — wait, isn’t violent behavior supposed to be disturbing? — sexual content including graphic dialogue, pervasive language, and drug content, some in the presence of a child)

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