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HESHER (2011) (**1/2)

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In so many ways this film reminded me of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE – it has a fascinating, unique central character that needs a better movie around him. Hesher and Napoleon are both slightly unlikable, but compelling misfits, but in completely opposite ways. Napoleon is the quintessential nerd, while Hesher is the quintessential anarchist. He really doesn't give a…

Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50) meets the film's young protagonist T.J. (Devin Brochu, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH) when the boy inadvertently alerts the cops to the long-haired metal head crashing at a house under construction. As a result, this 20-something loner decides to haunt this young boy day and night. He comes to his house and moves right in. He follows him to school. If T.J. tries to tell him to go away, Hesher threatens very seriously all sorts of violence on him. Covered in tattoos including a giant middle finger on his back and a stick figure blowing out his brains on his chest, Hesher is a force of nature.

If you're asking how Hesher just moves right in, it's a good question. T.J.'s mother died in a car accident recently and his father Paul (Rainn Wilson, TV's THE OFFICE) is inconsolable, spending day and night on the couch staring blankly at the TV. They actually live with his mother (Piper Laurie, CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD), a sweet old woman who wishes she could do more for her son and grandson. Paul and Grandma just allowing Hesher to squat in their garage and eat at their table as "T.J.'s friend" seems really false. He does have a way of forcing people to do what he wants, but we never see that with Paul and Grandma, so their ambivalence is untrue even with Paul deep in depression.

Meanwhile, T.J. is obsessed with getting the totaled family car back from the junkyard. He tries to buy it back from Larry (John Carroll Lynch, FARGO), but the increasingly irritated man keeps telling him that it's not for sale. Much like Hesher, T.J. doesn't take no for an answer. So at one point he locks himself in the car and when Larry's teenaged employee Dustin (Brendan Hill, IDIOCRACY) tries to get him out, he crushes the teen's fingers in the window. This of course causes Dustin to torment T.J. at school. When Hesher sees this, he does nothing. T.J. is pissed, so Hesher goes out and defaces Dustin's car making matters worse.

After one particularly bad run in with Dustin, T.J. is saved by Nicole (Natalie Portman, CLOSER), a clerk at the grocery store. T.J. develops a crush on her, because she is someone in his life who has actually done something for him. But when she meets Hesher things get weird.

Levitt goes for it. Hesher is a violent antisocial ne'er-do-well. He just reacts to a situation without thinking and 99% of the time he makes things worse. His lack of caring about anything is a source of great pride. Intimidation is his first method to get anything. And he follows through with his threats. If he says he's going to hit you with his car you better run. But he has a soft spot for Grandma. They smoke weed together and he promises to go on walks with her in the morning, which T.J. always backs out of.

You have to give it to director Spencer Susser, who co-wrote the script with David Michod based on Brian Charles Frank's story – he doesn't back off from going really dark with his black comedy. Sometimes though he goes over the edge into unfunny and when that happens I got uncomfortable. T.J. doesn't deserve to get crapped on as much as he gets and the more extreme it gets the less humorous it becomes. And as things progress and Hesher's influence starts to rub off on him, we are not sure what to think about that.

Because Hesher is not the central character and we know nothing about is background, his softening up at the end seems abrupt. He is too big of a personality to be the "mentor" to a little boy. A more traditional arc of having Hesher "redeemed" through a relationship with a young kid might have worked better like it did in BAD SANTA. And that film didn't pull punches with its black humor either. Like its title character, HESHER is more of a curiosity than something you want to have in your home.

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Rick DeMott
Animation World Network
Creator of Rick's Flicks Picks