As the film industry has contracted, and the burden of financing shifted away from companies and more onto creative individuals themselves, American independent films of the past 10 years or so, whatever their genre, have been typically characterized by a certain eagerness to please. This isn’t entirely surprising. Like any other occupational venture in tougher economic times, there’s an element of self-preservation involved; emergent filmmakers have a desire to keep working, and so they craft stories, consciously or subconsciously, that often play to the whetted appetites of a particular audience or demographic.
Writer-director Spencer Susser‘s feature debut, Hesher, is not much concerned with such niceties. It’s not flat-out confrontational, per se, but it is warped, weird and given to neither easy explanation nor pat, sum-of-its-parts analysis. By various turns a shrewdly drawn coming-of-age drama and a full-tilt, gonzo exploration of the dirty, unfortunate reality that pain and disappointment visits everyone’s life, the movie — about a young kid (Devin Brochu) coping with the death of his mother, and the vaguely sociopathic loner who forces his way into his home, moving in with said kid’s father (Rainn Wilson) and grandmother (Piper Laurie) — cruises along solidly, for much of its running time, on the unlikely interplay of its two lead characters before finally losing its way a bit in the home stretch.
A colleague described Hesher, in less than flattering terms, as a knock-off of Chuck Palahniuk produced by people raised only on Sundance films, and that’s actually not a bad description, to whatever degree one is invested in or detested with the narrative. With his crudely drawn tattoos, stringy hair, facial scruff, penchant for elliptical aphorisms, and psychotic thousand-yard stare, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Hesher comes across as a sort of punk-rock Jesus or G.G. Allin disciple — or perhaps a Beavis & Butt-head acolyte who’s stepped down out of their cartoon suburban world into a slightly more grounded but equally scummy American suburbia. He’s an outsized character, at once original and representational, and to the extent one objects to dollops of ambiguity and abstraction liberally applied to a narrative of coming-of-age and familial reconciliation, they will find molehills or not outright mountains of frustration in Hesher. Hesher is real, yes, but it’s also somewhat best to think of him as a construct or a forceful change agent rather than attempt to make sense of all of his behavior.
The film’s third act isn’t quite as tightly drawn as it should be; rather than pull back and swing for a knockout blow, Susser seems to lose his nerve. He aims for a pay-off more in line with traditional settled-grief catharsis, which doesn’t quite fully connect, the way it’s constructed. Neither does the intimation of a potential relationship between Nicole (Natalie Portman) and Hesher make total sense. Reflecting back on this now, it’s hard to fully distill or explain these criticisms, except to simply say that, for me, the movie’s hold simply loosened considerably.
And yet, still, Hesher courses with a unique verve missing in many independent productions, hovering somewhere between outright success and “interesting failure.” An appreciation of feeling is what informs one’s affection for this movie, much more than a simple narrative engagement, and it taps into those raging, conflicted sensations of adolescence with considerable aplomb.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Hesher comes to DVD presented in 2.44:1 widescreen, with a Dolby digital 5.1 EX audio track and optional English and Spanish subtitles. Bonus features include seven minutes of deleted scenes and an additional seven-minute making-of featurette. Much more interesting is a clutch of outtakes that runs almost a full half-hour, and features Wilson’s impression of Rush Limbaugh, plus all sorts of unwound improvisation run amok. There’s also a sketch gallery of Hesher’s tattoos and other movie art, plus around two minutes of outdoor footage being ruined by the sounds of airplanes passing overheard. If that sounds like a weird DVD extra, it surely seems a fitting tribute, in a way, to this movie’s out-there title character. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B- (Movie) B- (Disc)