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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.
. "Hesher"

Hesher is unreal. No, I mean because he's an entirely fictional character. Or so most of us would find comfort in believing. He's got to have been born out of someone's nightmare -- not ours. Why? Because if anyone with his extremes of impulsive behavior came into your orbit you'd be calling 911.

He's cowriter-director Spencer Susser's creation, which he seems to have implanted into a story idea about a troubled family. The admixture is remarkable enough to stir up a film festival audience. In this case it was Sundance, January of 2010.

Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) isn't the vagrant or dope addict we assume him to be when young T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu, "In the Valley of Elah"), in a moment of rage, throws a stone through a window in a seemingly uninhabited construction project. Suddenly he's grabbed by a bare-chested man with long, black hair and dragged inside where Hesher has been living rent-free. The man roughs the kid up as penance for bringing his free loading to the attention of a security guard. The two fugitives escape together with only the older one gleeful about it.

T.J., a schoolboy with a bicycle, is plucky and charming, even as he bears a heavy weight for his young years. He's the protagonist of the story about a family suffering the recent loss of his mother in an auto accident for which his dad Paul (RainnWilson), who was behind the wheel, takes responsibility. They are coping with their grief, each in his own way. Dad pops pills, sports a gruffy growth of hair on his face, and has turned from a one-time successful businessman into a slothful sofa-rat. Therapy isn't doing him much good.

Completing the domestic picture is Grandmother (Piper Laurie) who isn't quite all there but she's a sweet old lady and has an affinity to raise the pleasantness level for everyone's benefit.

With no warning, Hesher appears at the Forney household, chain smoking and wanting to do his laundry at T.J.'s house and not prone to taking "no" for an answer from anyone. T.J.'s protestations are ignored by the whacko who simply assumes himself the master of any impulse he has to do anything!

But doing the laundry is the least of Hesher's sociopathic assumptions. He's there for the long haul and takes his place that evening at the dinner table as though he's an honored guest. Dad is non-plussed but way too wimpy to do anything about it. As for grandma, Hesher is T.J.'s new friend and she's simplistically pleased to welcome him into the family fold.

Hesher's subsequent influence on the young boy, willful though the boy may be, is heavy. A man who bows to no one, given to such extremes of behavior, is as fascinating as he is scary and T.J. is, for the most part, willing to go when Hesher tells him to get into the van. Which is how T.J. becomes an accessory to arson when Hesher gets it into his mind to penalize T.J.'s school bully.

By now we're all fascinated by the originality of what Susser has dreamt up for a character with no restraint, an ability to dominate any situation, and a free-floating life style. He's also not without a sense of humor and a steady desire to right wrongs.

The story's interest level ratchets up when Hesher spies T.J. spying on the fetching checkout clerk at the market. Nicole (Natalie Portman) had saved T.j. from a beating by his perennial bully and has since developed a crush. When Hesher see's what the boy has been doing, he's more than a little impressed by the lad's choice, a reaction that raises the young paramour's fears of unfair competition from his fearless nutcase of a friend.

The boy's fears are borne out by subsequent events which includes Hesher's meeting Nicole and putting on a display of loony-tunes destruction of an unoccupied house. By now, the fascination and the humor of Hesher's uninhibited acts are beginning to wear thin as a means to grease up the grieving family plotline. Susser and his co-writer have overplayed their hand. The grease has turned into sludge and a strong strain of illogic becomes more manifest.

When Hesher and T.J. are following Nicole in her beat up car, and they're stopped at a light, Nicole take her foot off her brake and rear-ends the car in front of her, producing an enraged motorist threatening her and giving Hesher the chance to make his first impression on the lady by playing the deranged witness and instilling fear in the motorist's mind. Cute-meet? Kinda. But the convenient lurch forward to force a scene doesn't do a writer's effectiveness or reputation any favors.

Then, there's Hesher's omniscience. It's not that he merely reads people and knows how to control them. This guy is everywhere, springing up to change a situation at the precise right moment as though he's monitoring everyone's moves. His showing up at key moments becomes contrived and cartoonish. Why was he in the market when T.J. was looking at Nicole in the first place?

The main virtue of the film is the casting; in particular Brochu. Good kid actors who can command the screen like he does, in his age range, aren't easy to come by. This boy can act. In my crystal ball I see starring roles in his future if he can sustain the promise he shows here into his adult years.

Gordon-Levitt, whom I consider a still under-rated actor (did you see him in "Inception"?), gets into this role with the totality of his talents and a stretch into new territory. The slenderness of his build, of which we see so much, becomes an advantage over someone with lots of gym time. Portman's role could be played by any number of actresses but she adds her distinctive sex kittenish personna and naturalism to the part.

Laurie is spot on as an early-onset Alzheimerish grandma and she contributes a bucket-full of support and mild propulsion to the enterprise. There's not much to say about Wilson's recessive presence except that he brings dullness to a painful level.

I return, finally, to the reaction I had that this assemblage of characters isn't the product of a single story but, rather, the coalescing of at least two. And, that the mix never makes it to a natural blend. The title could have been "Hesher and T.J." if fairness was a factor. Fortunately, there's enough humor in all this to counteract the exploitation of weird logic and audacious coincidence. Given that, "Hesher" is something that you can critique only so much before you give in and take is as unique and congenial fun.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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