'Hesher': A Metalhead Mary Poppins, Tattoos And All

May 11, 2011

When parents talk about someone who'd be a bad influence for their children, they're basically talking about Hesher.

This twentysomething vagrant, played as a anarchic, overgrown wild-child by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, wears his hair long and greasy. He's got a middle-finger tattoo in the small of his back, and he exhibits a pronounced fondness for drugs, pornography and blowing things up.

All of which, strange as it may seem, makes him exactly what 12-year-old T.J. and his family need in their lives. Which is lucky, because after T.J. accidentally gets Hesher kicked out of a house in which he'd been squatting, Hesher follows him home and without so much as word of introduction, moves into the garage, strips to his briefs, tosses the rest of his clothes in the laundry, and settles down to watch TV.

Normally, you'd expect T.J.'s dad to call the police, but this family isn't entirely functional at present. Just two months earlier, they lost T.J.'s mom -– the circumstances will be revealed later –- and now Dad is being medicated for depression. Granny isn't really all there even on good days. And the path of least resistance is simply to set another place at the table, so T.J. realizes pretty quickly that like it or not, Hesher is now part of his life –- albeit an entirely inappropriate part.

Now, in most movies, this would be the moment when the anarchic wild-child starts to develop a protective side, helping the family deal with its trauma. In this case, Dad could use a wake-up call, and T.J. could use help dealing with a school bully. But Hesher doesn't much care about their problems. Bullying interests him only insofar as it gives him an excuse to set fire to a bully's sports car. (Which it does.)

When T.J. develops a crush on a supermarket cashier, Hesher urges him to ... well, let's just say everything he urges is inappropriate, the mildest thing he suggests being that they should stalk the object of T.J.'s affection as she drives home from work.

That's what they're doing when she plows absentmindedly into a stopped car. Hesher, naturally, leaps into the ensuing argument, defending her honor by claiming the other car backed into her. Soon he's shuttling her and T.J. to a stranger's backyard pool for a victory swim, setting fire to the diving board, and abandoning them to deal with the police.

Director Spencer Susser doesn't try to make Hesher anything other than a sociopath — a walking, profanity-spewing id — and to his credit, neither does Gordon-Levitt. The last time movie audiences saw this actor, in Inception, he was weightless and adrift in a dream state. Here, you'd have to say he's adrift again, but in a decidedly more down-to-earth sense.

Few young actors have been so enviably hard to pigeonhole; he's played a gay hustler in Mysterious Skin, a wide-eyed innocent in 500 Days of Summer, a businesslike dream-weaver in Inception and now an anarchic oddball with no backstory.

No front-story either, really. There's barely a plot for him to work with in Hesher, and though there are some relatively big names attached — The Office's Rainn Wilson as T.J.'s dad, Piper Laurie as granny, Natalie Portman as the cashier — nobody besides Hesher and T.J. actually has much to do.

Perhaps because Gordon-Levitt was a child star himself in Third Rock From the Sun, he's got a nifty sort of anti-rapport with Devin Brochu's T.J. They spend the whole movie sparring with and startling each other, never acknowledging that a weird bond is forming between headbanger and middleschooler.

It's the kind of relationship you'd never allow if you had any say in their lives, but it's intriguing to watch how it transforms a film about loss and grief into a surprising, anarchic and occasionally rollicking misfit movie — one in which being a misfit, for once, doesn't seem such a bad fit. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.