HESHER IS A STAR-POWERED indie that does two things really right: Casting Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a pot-smoking, van-driving miscreant, and investing in the authenticity of its grimy, small-town setting.
The film provides a rare, real look at what it's like to live in a boring town with crappy public schools, indifferent teachers, and bullies rampaging unchecked through the halls. TJ (Devin Brochu) is a sad, scrappy kid; his mom recently died, and his dad (a bearded Rainn Wilson) is still mourning, consoling himself with an aggressive pill habit. His grandmother (Piper Laurie) keeps food on the table, but otherwise TJ is completely unsupervised, and suffering from the lack of adult attention. He falls off his bike. He gets hits by a car. He gets hit by a van. He gets beaten up by a bully. He takes a lot of shit, but his resolve never wavers: He's determined to buy back the family car—the same car his mom died in.
Enter Hesher (Gordon-Levitt), the school fuck-up and a note-perfect rep-resentation of those scarily reckless small-town kids with nothing better to do than get fucked up and break things. Hesher takes up uninvited residence in TJ's house and introduces an element of callow, reckless fun to the still-grieving household.
The performances here are solid, even if Natalie Portman is fooling absolutely no one as a plain, lonely grocery store clerk. Rainn Wilson's understated performance proves he can be somebody other than Dwight Schrute, and Piper Laurie makes an endearing, sympathetic grandma. But it's Gordon-Levitt's movie: He's bizarrely plausible as a loose-cannon high schooler whose displays of violence and pyrotechnic vandalism are made extra scary by his total disregard for the physical and emotional consequences of his actions.
But while Hesher-the-character refuses to play by the rules, Hesher-the-movie is dutiful in its adherence to a predictably redemptive indie storyline. It almost hurts to see so much authenticity and grit corralled so neatly. The film's got some great moments—a scene in which Hesher stages an impromptu pool party, and the unbearable tension of the moment before TJ's mom dies—but all that greatness is in the service of a manipulative, predictable story.