Covering Sundance can be a daunting thing, and admittedly before I'd ever gone to the festival I thought it was just smiles and fun in the snow, watching the occasional movie. However, working at Sundance usually means seeing five films a day, trekking from one side of Park City to the other and praying that you'll make it into the next screening on time, while hoping your balls don't freeze. Which is not to say that it's not fun, it's just not the Super Sexy International Film Critic life I pictured in my head.
What this pell-mell schedule usually means is that you end up missing films, and some of those end up being gems. Case in point is the impressive Hesher from writer / director Spencer Susser. It screened at Sundance 2010, and was also a selection at SXSW earlier this year. The film is now in wide release across the United States, and it's all thanks to Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Yes, really.
Susser worked on the "Making Of" documentary that would accompany the DVD release of Star Wars Episode II in Sydney, Australia (although he's not a native), where he met Natalie Portman during filming. Afterwards, he sent her the script for Hesher, along with a short film he'd directed. Miraculously, she loved it, and got behind it as her own production company's first film. She also co-stars in the film, alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rainn Wilson, and a young actor named Devin Brochu.
Brochu stars as T.J. Forney, a boy who is dealing with the death of his mother in a car crash, while his father Paul (Rainn Wilson, proving that he can be a lot more than Dwight Schrute) takes pills to dull the pain, and sleep-stumbles through the aftermath of their life with no emotion. Piper Laurie plays Paul's elderly mother who is about the perfect grandmother from the baby-boomer generation: she knows how to cook a meal and treat everyone with sweet kindness, yet she's powerless when it comes to trying to put the pieces of her son and grandson back together.
The film opens with T.J. desperately trying to get the family car back, which has apparently sat for months in a wrecked state in front of the Forney household. Paul has sold the wreck for scrap, and T.J. tries unsuccessfully to get the car back, which becomes one of the focal points of the film. It's the last place he saw his mother alive, and that's not something he's willing to let go of yet. With his checked-out father and a bully pounding on him constantly who happens to be the son of the auto yard who bought the junked station wagon, T.J. is having a tough time.
When he seeks solace in a nearby housing development that is under construction, smashing windows in anger, he illicits the ire of the titular Hesher. Often shirtless, with very long, heavy-metal hair and tattoos that look like they were inked by a five-year-old, Gordon-Levitt complete owns the role and becomes what can be best described as a "Heavy Metal Mary Poppins" to the Forney clan. After T.J. unsuspectingly brings down security on Hesher, Hesher then begins shadowing T.J.'s life at school, then follows him home where he walks in, strips down to his skivvies to do laundry, and adopts himself into the Forney's home.
Despite Hesher's bizarre appearance and his extremely foul mouth, he doles out an invisible wisdom and (whether it's unintentional or not is up to you) often causes characters to evolve. Although he's just as apt to light up a cigarette, talk about "fingerbanging," or terrorize paseengers in his van with unexpected course changes and choking dust clouds from doing donuts in parking lots, he helps T.J. toughen up and confront his life, helps the eldery Madeleine Forney feel love, and even forces Paul to become the father he's not. The razor blade that the film walks is that you're never entirely sure if Hesher is there to help, or might drive a switchblade through a character's eye at any given moment.
While this is what keeps the film sharp and solidly rooted in the black comedy camp (this is not lighthearted by any means), Hesher is not without flaws. Natalie Portman's Nicole sadly isn't given much to do in the film, and you're forced to bend reality in your own mind to understand how Hesher can just waltz in so easily. There's some stumbling near the film's end when Hesher delivers a rambling euology that is meant to emotionally tie the ending together, but it doesn't quite get there. Still, when all is said and done, you can't help but want to see more of Hesher's antics and philosophy. He's like a headbanging member of the Jackass crew.
If you had told me years ago that the young kid on Third Rock From The Sun with be able to nail a performance like this, I never would have believed it. Gordon-Levitt has constantly surprised in his choice of film roles, appearing in such eclectic fare as Mysterious Skin, Brick, and Elektra Luxx, while also seesawing into more mainstream fare like (500) Days of Summer, Inception, and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises. At the same Sundance that Hesher premiered at, he was patiently and wholeheartedly pitching his HitRECord cloud-sourced film production project to the masses.
But, despite the title of the film and Gordon-Levitt's pervasive performance, the film really does belong to Brochu. Susser captures a performance on film from him that will resonate with you long after the credits fade. You'll truly believe that this is a real kid struggling with his life, and he telegraphs the same rage, hatred, love, and regret that we all felt at some point in our childhood. He's definitelty an actor to keep an eye on in upcoming films. 2010 was already good to him, landing him in both Hesher and the delightfully bizarre Rubber, the film about a sentient, superpowered tire. Yes, really.
Hesher should be in a theater near you, and is well worth checking out. It is definitely one of the most memorable films of 2010.