Reviews

Look What the Cat Dragged In: 'Hesher'

Hesher isn't a flesh-and-blood being, but rather, an avatar for a bereaved boy's id.


Hesher

Director: Spencer Susser
Cast: Devin Brochu, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie, Brendan Ian Hill, John Carroll Lynch
Length: 106 min
Studio: Newmarket Films
Year: 2011
Distributor: Lionsgate
MPAA Rating: R
Release date: 2011-09-22

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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum
Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Music

Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.

Music

Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.