Losing a loved one is never easy, especially when that person is your wife or your mother. Even though everyone copes with death at their own pace, most people prefer to isolate themselves and wallow in their own misery. In Spencer Susser’s drama “Hesher,” Paul Forney (Rainn Wilson) and his son TJ (Devin Brochu) are no different. They have immersed themselves in grief since TJ’s mother was killed in a tragic car accident.
Paul and TJ have shut themselves off emotionally from everyone around them, including Paul’s mother Madeleine (Piper Laurie), who lovingly cooks and cares for them. Despite their attempts to attend support groups, neither Paul nor TJ is truly willing to share their feelings with others. Paul spends his days in a pill induced haze and TJ barely speaks to the people he meets, like the shy grocery store clerk Nicole (Natalie Portman), a Good Samaritan who rescues him from trouble.
TJ and Paul’s comfortable life of grieving is thrown into complete chaos however, when a drifter named Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) follows TJ home, and invites himself to live in the garage. The long-haired, bearded stranger barges into their home, where he takes up shirtless residence. Hesher’s homemade tattoos and fiery temper intimidate Paul and TJ, who find themselves too frightened to boot him out, so they acquiesce to his presence.
The mysterious and unpredictable Hesher becomes a negative influence on TJ, because he engages in emotional outbursts of violence and arson that TJ soon learns to mimic. Hesher is not all bad though; since he teaches TJ to stand up to bullies and he encourages TJ befriend Nicole, who TJ clearly finds attractive.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt largely carries this film through his complete commitment to the character of Hesher. Gordon-Levitt portrays Hesher like an asshole older brother, with a criminal history, who moonlights as a rock star. From head-to-toe he looks the part, and he exudes an arrogant swagger that makes him convincing as an impulsive jerk. Framing Hesher as a brother-like figure makes it clear that he really does care about TJ at his core, which helps him maintain likability as a character.
From a directorial standpoint, Susser adds to the rock star aspect, through the guitar riff sound effects he throws in when we’re first introduced to Hesher. The disjointed stories that he has Hesher tell, add humor as well because they are on par with the intoxicated ramblings we associate with musicians.
The only part of “Hesher” that’s a bit hard to buy is Natalie Portman’s Nicole. Nicole represents a woe is me type of character, who also is depressed like TJ, because no one notices her and she’s barely surviving financially. Despite the plain clothes and nerdy glasses that Susser puts on Portman though, she’s still too pretty to be believable as someone who blends in to the crowd.
Aside from this one aspect, “Hesher” is an entertaining film because it’s so unconventional in how it approaches dealing with grief. Hesher’s presence stirs up a number of emotions within Paul and TJ, most notably anger, which knocks them out of their funk and allows them to confront their grief, so that they can start living again. Without even realizing it, Hesher effectively rehabilitates Paul and TJ, teaching them to seize the day and to treasure every moment, which in a strange way is just what the doctor ordered.