SXSW '11 Review: Hesher

· Joanthan Poritsky

Though it’s been around since last year’s Sundance, Hesher is finally coming to theaters with its first push to the public here at SXSW. Good thing it’s coming now, because there was almost a shortage of Natalie Portman films in the pipe. It’s a pretty good film, though perhaps hard to describe. I’ll go with a cross between E.T, Little Miss Sunshine and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Which is to say it’s about a lost boy who meets a nutcase which changes his relationship with his father.

Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a badass squatter with a middle finger tattoo on his back who likes to blow shit up. When T.J. (Devin Brochu), a depressed middle-schooler with a propensity for incurring injury, accidentally loses Hesher a sweet hideout, the metal-head wanderer decides to squat in T.J.’S house with his father and grandmother.

After the death of his wife, T.J.’S father Paul (Rainn Wilson) falls into a debilitating depression which causes his mother (Piper Laurie) to move in and help out around the house. Hesher walks into this broken home not only for the free roof and food but also, apparently, to fix it. He is someone who knows broken families (it’s unclear how long he has been a homeless child) and makes it his mission to ensure T.J. Won’t go through life the same way he did. Of course, he’s rough around the edges so this all has to be inferred while he is setting fire to a bully’s car or tossing a cherry bomb at a cop car or sucking on a tall boy at a funeral.

Hesher is a complex role, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes on the task with everything he’s got. There is no reason to love him but somehow, Gordon-Levitt makes it possible. He keeps his eyes sympathetic even as he chortles through low-level terrorism. Also taking a nice dramatic turn is Rainn Wilson, who, just like his office co-star John Krasinkski did in Away We Go, dons a mighty beard, a sign of his darkness and adultness, to play Paul. He goes to great lengths to not be funny in Hesher, and it plays wonderfully. It’s doing exactly what he needs for his career: proving he has a range.

Also present is Natalie Portman, who hearkens back to her Garden State quirkiness as Nicole, the frumpy-hipster-hot grocery store clerk who serves as T.J.’s inappropriate love interest/muse. It’s a refreshing role for Portman. Unlike her starring role in The Other Woman she actually fits in Nicole’s shoes. It’s weird; she is a glamorous movie star and yet it’s the simpler, smaller roles that she fleshes out more successfully.

All told, Hesher is a very good film. Hesher himself is full of surprises; he’s a great character to watch unfurl, or come undone is a better way of putting it. The problem is in the ending. everything gets tied up predictably and, for lack of a better term, cutesy-wutesy. The last 15 minutes are no decent payoff for the characters we’ve gotten close to throughout the film. Slow-mo musical reveal? Yep, you betcha. Amer-indie cinema is a form all its own, and it’s getting stale with time.