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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Hesher’

Heavy metal meets Hallmark

- - Thursday, May 12, 2011

'Hesher" is a primal, earthy piece of American mythology, shot through with oil smoke, tattoo ink and speed metal. Set in a crumbling suburb somewhere in the post-recessionary sprawl of Southern California, "Hesher" tells the story of a family broken by tragedy that finds the strength to heal from a surpassingly unlikely source.

Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an aggressive, aimless, seemingly nihilistic headbanger, who lives out of a rickety van and has an appetite for pointless destruction. Young T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu) stumbles on Hesher in a construction site while in flight from bullies. The two share a brief but explosive encounter that appears fleeting — until Hesher takes up residence at T.J.'s house.

T.J. and his father Paul (Rainn Wilson) are reeling from the recent car accident that took the life of T.J.'s mother. While T.J.'s response is to act on his pain by trying to reclaim the remains of the vehicle his mom died in, Paul is near catatonic with grief. Bearded and unkempt, Mr. Wilson is here almost unrecognizable from his role as the unctuous Dwight Schrute from "The Office." Paul's defeated yet tense affect is deceptively unstudied, but quite remarkable as a portrait of shuffling, inchoate sadness. Paul's mother, Madeleine (played by a 79-year-old Piper Laurie), does her best to keep the household moving, despite the burdens of infirmity and dementia.

Hesher moves into this house of pain like a trickster of lore, challenging the conventions of mourning with loud music, profanity and random acts of betrayal. When T.J. meets Nicole (Natalie Portman), a waif of a cashier at a local supermarket, Hesher horns in on the budding friendship. While seeming to help T.J. in his ongoing battles with a local bully, Hesher actually sets T.J. up for a fight he is not expecting.

Mr. Gordon-Levitt plays Hesher as a kind of offbeat prophet - part narcissist, part avenging angel. He has a gentle touch with Madeleine that inspires some of the movies sweeter scenes. Yet he refuses to concede to anyone - especially Paul — that there is a right to despair. By intruding on the family's "new normal" of suffering, he alters their context and forces them to engage with real life. It's a little formulaic — a heavy metal "Hallmark Hall of Fame" special — but the winning performances, humor and outrageousness make it work.

★★★

TITLE: "Hesher"

CREDITS: Directed by Spencer Susser. Written by Spenser Susser and David Michod

RATING: R for language, sexual situations and drug use

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS