Sunday, September 25, 2011

Film Review: HESHER

            The film HESHER is billed as a comedy.  There it is, right on the DVD box,
"Hilarious", says Eric Vespe of AINT IT COOL NEWS.
            While there are many moments that Hesher's behavior is funny by way of its sheer incongruity, this is a very sad film.  It's about a family grieving for the mother, who died two months ago in a traffic accident.  The bereaved father, son and grandma live in a cluttered house whose air is so thick with pain that it's enough to knock you flat just walking through the door.
            Hesher is a thirty-ish slacker who seems to have radar for helpless people.  He finds them and uses them to support his slacker lifestyle.  He lives in houses under construction or in empty vacationer's houses or sometimes in his black-primered van.  His magnetism derives from the fact that he is utterly without etiquette, morals, or concern for what anyone else thinks.  He commits a continuous string of crimes, walking through their concussions as if he is a distant spectator, unaware of the pain he creates in the people who get too near his blast zone.  We keep wanting him to be a hero, but he's not.  He's a selfish asshole without any deep personal connections.  He doesn't deserve any, and that seems to be fine with Hesher.
            TJ, the twelve year old son, rides his bike in pursuit of the family's fatal accident-car.  He follows it to the garage where he asks to buy it back.  He's obsessed with the death car, an ordinary red sedan with clear indications of the lethal T-bone that took his mother's life.  The whole family was in the car when it was hit.  Everyone else was okay.  TJ's mother took the full impact.
            The car is TJ's only connection to his mother's memory.  It's morbid, weird, but that's how it plays.  TJ wants the car so badly that he steals his father's credit card and offers the buying price but it's too late.  The car has gone to the wrecker's, where it is being reduced to a small cube of scrap metal. 
            The garage owner throws him out.  It happens that the garage owner has a sixteen year old son who is TJ's nightmare bully, a spike-haired pimply monster who owns a yellow convertible sports car.
            Hesher meets TJ when the latter throws a rock through the window of a partially constructed house, which is located in a partially constructed subdivision.  The rock throwing draws the cops.  Hesher beats a hasty retreat, tossing a smoke bomb (or something that looks like a hand grenade) out the window and jumping into his black van.  He follows TJ home, strips down to his undies, puts his clothes in the wash, helps himself to food and sets up a room in the garage.  TJ's dad is too passive from taking pills to object.  Grandma takes it as yet another bizarre page in life's crazy book.  Grandma has prescription marijuana cigarettes for an unspecified illness.  This is lovely for Hesher, who initiates granny into the virtues of the bong.
            Grandma is the only person with some sap left in the leaves and stems of her life.  She's beyond being shocked by human behavior.  She takes Hesher as she finds him, and a bond arises between the old lady and the punk who looks like Jesus and has a tattoo on his back of a large hand giving the world The Finger.
            This film belongs, lock stock and barrel, to the character of TJ, played by Devin Brochu.  His rage and sadness are so visceral, so real that I can't help but wonder how a boy his age comes by such experience.  There are a lot of great young actors and I often ask the same question but I've never seen a child actor carry such a sense of the world's unfairness.  Brochu's performance is amazing, worth an Oscar with a side order of Golden Globe.  He projects his rage, his devastation, he builds a wall between himself and his father, between himself and the world, yet there is still a chink of vulnerability.  That chink is plastered over with a sign written in plain English: NO ONE GETS NEAR ME!
            Grandma tries her best.  She's always inviting him on walks.  "Teej, it's such a beautiful day, why don't you come with me on my walk through the park?"
            "I'm busy, grandma, I've got school grandma, I've got homework grandma."  TJ 's not letting any fresh air reach him.  He's basting his grievance in the furnace of his rage and it's scary. 
            Hesher isn't his buddy.  Hesher fails TJ on every count.  When Big Bully is pushing TJ's face into the urinal cake in the school bathroom, Hesher happens along, takes a look at the situation and walks back out the door.
            "Why didn't you help me?", TJ later demands.  Hesher takes a can of gasoline in one hand, pinions TJ's wrists in the other and drags him to Big Bully's house.  The spotless yellow sports car gets a douse of gasoline.
            TJ's angry but TJ isn't stupid or insane.  He begs Hesher to stop.  Hesher doesn't stop.  The convertible goes up in flames and the next day the police are putting TJ and his dad through the wringer.  Being a minor, TJ is set free.  His father asks, "did you burn that car, T.J?"
            "No," says TJ  "Well, sort of..." he equivocates, then decides to stay with "No."  How can he explain what happened?
            One day Hesher goes to granny's room and finds her dead on the floor.
            It's a moment when TJ and his dad must either break irrevocably or find a new path.  It's the moment when Hesher becomes the hero we've always wanted him to be.  He shows up at the funeral holding a giant can of beer.  I can't reveal subsequent events without being a spoiler.  Let's just say that at last granny gets her walk with TJ, dad, and her pal Hesher.
            This is a good film.  Directed by Spencer Susser, written and directed by Susser and David Michod, it's odd, sometimes funny, poignant and never quite what we expect.  The conventional line would have been to cast Hesher as the subtle Zen Master with method to his madness, leading his grieving new friends to healing acceptance.  That's not gonna happen.  Hesher is not Mister Miyagi.  Hesher is more like the broken watch that tells the correct time twice a day.  Fortunately, he gets it right after granny's death, when it's needed the most.
            Four muskrats for this film, with Rainn Wilson as Mr. Forney, Piper Laurie as Grandma, Natalie Portman with glasses and split ends as a grocery clerk who befriends TJ.  Of course there's Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing a fine imitation of Hesher. 

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