Sometimes you hear the short pitch for a movie and you're sold right away. For example, "Simon Pegg and Nick Frost find out aliens are real," or "Jeff Bridges in a Coen Brothers movie." Well here's the elevator pitch for Hesher: "Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is a burnout metalhead who inserts himself into a bullied teen's life."
"Ok, I'm in, one ticket please," - me from a few weeks ago when I first heard about the movie.
Except here's the thing about Hesher, which premiered last year at Sundance and opened for wide release on Friday: the scenario described in that pitch turns out to be less fun than it sounds. Maybe I'm giving writer/director Spencer Susser too much credit, but I think that's what he was going for.
I mean, it sounds brilliant on paper - Gordon-Leavitt has become this guy who really shines with well-defined characters in small movies (ok, so the only one I'm really thinking of is Brick, but that's a pretty great movie and if you haven't seen it just stop everything you have going in your life for two hours and watch it). He doesn't quite stand out in blockbusters, mostly because his character is usually Mr. Cool Guy (oh hey, Inception).
I'll also confess that I was about to defend his work in GI Joe, but since all his lines were dubbed in afterward and also the movie was really bad, let's just skip ahead. The bottom line about Hesher is that it's worth seeing for JGL's performance as the title character; not only is it tremendously entertaining but it remains the most consistent aspect of the film.
For for the first 20 minutes or so, Hesher plays according to that one-line pitch. Our main character, an undersized high schooler named T.J., is coping with the recent death of his mom, and circumstance leads him to accidentally encounter the titular metalhead. Hesher refuses to let that chance encounter be an isolated incident, and becomes an irresistible force in the life of T.J. That includes heavy metal riffs every time he appears on screen, gruffly-delivered life lessons and a bizarre student-teacher relationship that replaces the parenting T.J. isn't getting from his father (played by Rainn Wilson with a subtlety of which I didn't think he was capable).
Except something happens as the movie progresses and Hesher gets more involved in T.J.'s life. Things don't get better. Every time Hesher helps T.J. with one problem he creates two more. He complicates the boy's relationship with Nicole (Natalie Portman, trying hard to not look like an incredibly hot woman dressed as a nerd for Halloween), a grocery clerk and maternal figure with an Oedipal twist. Most of all, despite constantly getting up in T.J.'s shit, Hesher remains self-interested and aloof.
That kind of complexity makes the movie drag at points. As the audience, you find yourself wanting Hesher to be this drifter with a heart of gold who helps a young boy through a tough time; that's the Hollywood story. But this isn't a Hollywood story, and the movie seems to want to constantly remind you that the Hesher character is this way for a reason. The difficult part of this counterpoint is that it doesn't just happen once - it happens again and again throughout the movie. Even late in the film during a long-awaited redemptive scene, Hesher's behavior is so harsh and abrupt that it doesn't feel like a redemptive moment at all.
The movie has a strong message about the nature of people and personal responsibility when it comes to the impetus for change. It's unfortunate that it has to sting so much along the way, but it might be a necessary evil. If nothing else, Hesher is worth seeing for Gordon-Leavitt and Wilson alone; both men do remarkable jobs playing characters at the opposite pole from what you've come to expect from them.
Some movies don't live up to the one-line concept that sells you. Hesher takes that concept and attacks your perceptions with a lit cigarette and Metallica blaring in the background.