Hesher is a strangely forgettable film, made even more strange since its final shot is of graffiti that reads “Hesher Was Here.” That’s not a spoiler – Hesher leaves an impression everywhere he goes whether he’s going to return or not. As played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he’s a nihilist who breaks into people’s houses to trash their backyard without reason yet abides by a moral code all his own, making it especially difficult for the 13-year-old TJ (Devin Brochu) to consider him a friend or foe.
For the sake of his father (Rainn Wilson) and his grandmother (Piper Laurie), TJ calls him a friend, though no member of the Forney family really knows why Hesher starts sleeping on their couch for days on end. TJ can only suspect it has something to do with accidentally stumbling into the stringy-haired drifter days earlier while trying to escape a schoolyard bully, and after suffering the loss of their matriarch, no one in the household can muster up the courage to kick Hesher out.
This contrivance gives Spencer Susser’s directorial debut its greatest strength and its biggest weakness as Gordon-Levitt is at the top of his game as the film’s titular character even if the film around him falls apart like so many ashes Hesher has left behind him. Hesher’s gravitational pull isn’t questioned as he heaves tables and sets fires, acts that the Forneys and their local ineffectual supermarket clerk (Natalie Portman), who also befriends TJ, only wish they could do in polite society. But Hesher, the film and the character, is defined by extremes, so having a strong center only magnifies what a dull world that’s created around him, insisted upon by Susser’s eternally sepia-tinged color palette and the characters’ eternal refrain from actually taking action.
Ironically, the foundation of the style here was also present in “Animal Kingdom,” the crime family saga made by David Michôd, one of Susser’s partners in the Blue Tongue Collective, the Australian group of filmmakers who are exciting thus far precisely because of their interest in upsetting the mundane. But Michôd, who is credited as a co-screenwriter on “Hesher,” had a far more interesting setting for his directorial debut, making a slow burn thriller where the outbursts of violence in an otherwise sedate tale of backroom manuevering worked as an interesting contrast to genre conventions, whereas when “Hesher” goes for the profound, it falls into the traps of indie quirk.
There are knowing nods in that direction – Hesher says at one point, “People always ask if I’m speaking in metaphors” after launching into an explanation of why he has only one testicle, and indeed, the testicle that’s gone missing could be an allusion to all the lost souls in “Hesher” with a missing piece. Unfortunately, by speaking around the truth, it feels like truth is absent from the film, an ambiguous search for meaning that disconnects from reality and never really creates a fully-formed alternative. There are lapses in logic — a subplot involving TJ’s interactions with a scrapyard dealer for his mother’s wrecked Volvo is one of the most glaring, and while it’s fun to see Hesher randomly pop up at any time as an apparition would, the lack of storytelling rules begins to drain the film of any narrative tension.
Besides squandering Wilson, who dealt with grief in far more intriguing ways recently in “Super,” “Hesher” is also a missed opportunity for its director Susser, a clearly skilled filmmaker with a sharp eye for composition and a potentially stronger one for observation. Little details sprinkled throughout the film, which gets fine performances out of nearly all its cast, suggest he understands the ripple effects of the smallest gestures – a gentle “whoa” from Portman’s Nicole as Hesher sets a diving board ablaze may be the film’s finest moment. But befitting of a story about a tempermental outsider, “Hesher” is wildly uneven, capable of a few whoa moments of its own when it isn’t getting lost in its cockeyed stab at spirituality.
“Hesher” is now open in limited release.