Hesher (2011; dir. Spencer Susser) is an indie film in which damaged people join together to assuage pain. On the surface, the film is hard and relentlessly grim, even while it is funny. It focuses on a young boy, T. J., trying to deal with the loss of his mother in an automobile accident. His father is so passive and depressed that he can’t help the boy. Their grandmother, with whom they live and who is caring for them, can’t do much to help other than cook their meals. She chooses to let the wildness of her family go on around her, although in fact she hears and absorbs everything that happens. The boy is obsessed with recovering the family car in which his mother died. It’s at a junk dealer’s office and is scheduled for destruction.
The son of the junkyard owner harasses the boy, and after he defaces the car and flees, he runs into Hesher. Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in one of his best roles ever, Hesher is a foul-mouthed, hostile, heavily tattooed young man with a long mane of hair. He tells wild tales of sexual bravado to everyone he meets, including Natalie Portman, who plays a secondary role in the film as a grocery store clerk..
Hesher begins living at the boy’s house—he isn’t invited, he just shows up. Gradually we learn that he is in his own way as wounded as the others, and that he takes solace from this connection with a grieving family. They come to take solace from him.
The film really doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. That is, an underlying sentimentality gradually emerges. Hesher himself really doesn’t ever change. We just learn more about him and understand that beneath his brash and unpleasant exterior is a genuine human being.
Hesher gives an unusual speech at a funeral, and his last gesture of comic defiance is a profanity inscribed on the roof of the boy’s house, but by then we have succumbed to the unconventional charms of his character. The boy and his father begin recovering from their grief, and Hesher goes his way.