Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Hesher (Photo: Sundance Film Festival)

Directed by Spencer Susser
Produced by Lucy Cooper, Matthew Weaver, Scott Prisand, Natalie Portman, Spencer Susser, Johnny Lin & Win Sheridan
Written by Susser & David Michôd, based on a story by Brian Charles Frank
Released by Wrekin Hill Entertainment
USA. 102 min. Rated R
With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie & Natalie Portman

With his mother recently dead and his father (Rainn Wilson) in the throes of serious depression, middle schooler T. J. (Devin Brochu) has taken to skipping school and wandering the neighborhood on his bike. He soon finds himself “befriended” by a nihilistic drifter named Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), upon whose makeshift warehouse shelter he stumbles, and a ne’er-do-well supermarket cashier, Nicole (Natalie Portman), who rescues him from a local bully. The homeless, substance abusing, and often shirtless Hesher forces his way into T. J.’s life, taking quick advantage of T. J’s reluctant companionship, home cooked meals from grandma (Piper Laurie), and a place to sleep in the garage. I suppose an abusive friendship is a friendship nonetheless.

The humor is dark, sure, although I’d estimate that if there’s more “dark” here than “humor,” it’s not for lack of trying. There’s some kind of gag in most of the scenes, ranging from snarky punch lines that point out Hesher’s complete lack of respect for any kind of societal order to pratfalls and fart jokes. But how many times can a 13-year-old boy say “fuck” awkwardly in one movie? Be prepared to find out. I don’t know that first-time director Spencer Susser gets the drama/humor balance wrong per say, I just don’t love his juvenile sense of humor.

I do love the decrepit scenario, though. Well shot in graphic novel style by Susser’s brother Morgan, the cinematography is a definite highlight, with understated, yet stylized shots and deep contrasting tones, and it adds a lot to the grime. There aren’t a lot of flashy, elaborate camera setups as Hesher drives around in a frightful cargo van, abuses passersby, and terrorizes the neighborhood bully when he won’t leave T. J. alone. (You’ll cringe even more when Hesher, and later T. J., wields a pair of garden shears.) Rainn Wilson is devastating as a valium-popping widower doing his best to preserve some dignity despite moping around on his recliner for most of the film. The actor sports his best Zach Galifianakis beard and sense of sarcasm. He remains the pathetic and very human base in this sometimes outlandish film.

For all its disturbing and uncomfortable content, a soul appears from somewhere, and this film essentially becomes about loneliness in a small suburban town. It’s also about the emotional disconnection from one’s family, and the yearning just for an understanding friend that most people, especially misfits, feel. With Natalie Portman as the dejected, readily available love interest, this might as well be a Garden State sequel—with the cutesy Shins soundtrack replaced with frequent property destruction, copious cigarette smoke, and Motörhead. Whatever your take on the sinister sensibility, it’s interesting to see Portman and Gordon-Levitt (the two most beautiful actors in all of history?) wallowing in this dreary, unhappy predicament. Hesher’s childlike tattoos cover Joe-Go’s perfectly proportioned torso and are a reminder of the deliberate effort to dirty up this picture.

Do I believe the suburbs need a little nihilism shaking them up every now and then? Absolutely. Do I love the idea of a noisy, distorted electric guitar upsetting the quietude of your everyday American neighborhood? Without a doubt, Hesher is my kind of guy. Maybe it’s a minor point, but I object most to one thing I haven’t yet mentioned. The metal guitar riffs mostly play as a joke. For most of the film, there’s some hackneyed, emotionally pitched score completely spoiling the mood. It’s a small indication of the filmmakers’ lack of anti-establishment commitment. They’ve created a monster and are keeping him at bay with Hollywood conventions.

Though I may have imagined a different movie than the one I saw, Susser accomplishes a great deal here. The comic sensibility combined with a questionable set of ethics, unrelentingly espoused by a masochistic main character, is enough to give this one a look. But be prepared, you purveyors of destruction, for the trappings of a mainstream and “heartfelt” film to get in the way. Even Hesher has a heart in there somewhere.