Look What the Cat Dragged In: ‘Hesher’

Hesher isn’t a flesh-and-blood being, not really. Yes, he’s embodied by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but I like to think he springs from the troubled imagination of young T.J. Forney (a vibrant Devin Brochu), an avatar of the bereaved boy’s id, an avenger who will set right anything T.J. can’t, in Hesher, Spencer Susser’s darkly comic suburban satire.

In the opening scene, we see T.J. on his bike, frantically pursuing a tow truck transporting a damaged Volvo wagon. We quickly learn that his mother was recently killed in an accident in the same vehicle. T.J.’s dad Paul (Rainn Wilson of The Office) has practically glued himself to the living room sofa, still shell-shocked from loss, his beard shaggier than Rick Rubin’s. When T.J. later explores a construction site, he meets a rangy, shirtless squatter who resorts to extremes to distract a security officer hot on their trail.

Hesher enters T.J.’s emotional limbo with a literal bang, and the sparks only grow more incendiary. This profane, apparently homeless loner insinuates himself seamlessly into the boy’s life, even boldly taking up residence in the family home. It’s almost as if Hesher is a genie loosed from a bottle, but he challenges T.J., in a sometimes threatening manner, as often as he helps him.

T.J. needs protection from the thuggish Dustin (a rabid Brendan Ian Hill) whom he’s pissed off early in the film, and Hesher executes an over-the-top comeuppance for the hapless bully. This event sets a black-comic tone for the remainder of the film, but Hesher shifts skillfully between that sensibility and sincere earnest longing, particularly when Natalie Portman’s Nicole, an underemployed working-class store clerk rescues T.J. from Dustin’s imminent parking-lot beat-down, then becomes a close friend.

One could say that Nicole is a stand-in mother for the suffering T.J., but T.J. views their budding friendship through a somewhat different lens, and this complicates matters as Hesher, Nicole, and T.J. form a makeshift family. Shopgirl Nicole is certainly a more proper role model for the boy, despite her shabby downward mobility, but Hesher, in his crude rebelliousness, nevertheless tries to salve T.J.’s pain; he’s simultaneously a guardian angel and a malevolent influence, and it seems possible that he could lead the boy to the promised land… or into the river.

T.J.’s new ‘family’ provides him with a much-needed distraction from his grief, for although his dad clearly loves hm, Paul is too preoccupied to say much to his son. T.J.’s grandma is also present (an unrecognizable Piper Laurie), a quirky, warm spirit trying to keep peace between T.J. And Paul, while striking a amicable bond with the greasy-haired Hesher. I wasn’t surprised by this development, as it’s a common cinematic trope for opposite personalities to quickly find common ground.

Hesher presents a vivid sense of place; T.J.’s home is situated amid the anonymous, sun-baked sprawl of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, a landscape of stucco ranch houses, asphalt, and mini-malls, all duplicated from one community to the next. There was a time, a few decades back, when Americans imagined “the Valley” to be an Edenic homestead, as visions of sunset barbecues, crystalline swimming pools, and sleek two-tone Pontiacs danced in their heads. During the postwar era, a period of reckless suburbanization, the Beach Boys helped sell this dream – as did Chips for me during my childhood, albeit in a less direct fashion – but smog, traffic congestion, foreclosures, and education cutbacks have conspired to take the shine off the orange. Sandra Tsing Loh’s memoir A Year In Van Nuys seemed to hint at the bursting of the suburban dream bubble, Moon Zappa’s ’80s novelty smash Valley Girl is really about the wealthy mall-crawlers much farther west, and anyhow, who wants to take a dip in the polluted Pacific?

And Brochu’s T.J. is a pugnacious little sonofabitch; indeed, this juvenile actor may be the standout among the cast. T.J’s fearlessness is ever-present, whether standing up to bully boy Dustin, delivering a feral kick to Hesher’s groin, or trying to snap Paul out of his doldrums. His petulant rage, however, only conceals the still-aching loss he feels, and ultimately, he’s the most sensitive of the characters. Reluctantly, T.J. is coming of age.

Extras are surprisingly comprehensive for a low-budget film essentially ignored in its theatrical release. We have the requisite deleted scenes, including some inexplicable black-and-white footage. I’m not generally an aficionado of deleted scenes – watching them second-guesses the movie – and these are no less superfluous than others I’ve seen. Following that are 28 minutes of outtakes, with annoying clips of Brochu screaming a la Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin in Home Alone. There’s more clowning to wade through, and I couldn’t help wondering how much was necessary. Perhaps Wilson was of like mind, as he asks Susser at one point, “Are you fishing for DVD extras?”

There’s also a brief behind-the-scenes featurette in which the stars attempt to define exactly what the title character represents. Susser sums him up intriguingly: “Hesher is an angel, in a way.” As mentioned before, Hesher’s influence on the Forneys, especially T.J., is not unlike that of a heavenly guardian, and his appearance, lanky of build and flowing locks of hair, curiously evokes Jesus Christ, though surely most hardcore Christians would be horrified at the comparison.

Of course there’s the theatrical trailer, which is far too long, but that’s the norm nowadays. More compelling is the Hesher Sketch Gallery, a collection of chalk-like drawings, mostly lewd fantasies or toilet humor gags. This series seems like the bored doodlings of a slightly deranged early ’80s middle school metalhead, with the exception of one which re-creates the Last Supper, but with skeletons, simultaneously representing the Mexican holiday Day of The Dead and Hesher’s vaguely Christian vibe.

Finally, we get a short piece detailing shots ruined by jetliner noise, previews of other Lionsgate releases, and an oddity titled “Teaser Channels”, basically a few seconds of channel-surfing on the Forneys’ living room TV, followed by the inevitable Facebook page info for the film.

Hesher both celebrates and questions anarchic behavior, but its humorously poignant denouement leaves little doubt that Susser views Hesher as a positive force in the family’s life, a necessary twist in their melancholy sobriety. The title character’s insouciant vulgarity, often flaring up at the most inappropriate moments, is both amusing and disgusting, but his heart seems to be in the right place, though clearly not on his sleeve. He’s a personality split between the sacred and the profane.

RATING 7 / 10