I find the perceived marketability of smaller independent films, or lack there of, quite an interesting subject. Audiences for such films are open minded, like to be challenged and are usually willing to watch most things. So what causes an interesting looking independent film with a 'name' cast to be totally overlooked? This is the case with Hesher - a film with three well known names/faces which only managed a limited US theatrical release and premiered inauspiciously in the UK on DVD (not even bluray!) a couple of weeks back.
So why is this? Maybe it’s because Hesher is a surprisingly downbeat film, which I wasn’t really expecting from what I knew of it. It’s about T.J. (Devin Brochu), a young teen boy who recently lost his mother. He is bullied at school and seems to have no relationship with his father Paul (Rainn Wilson), who is lost in a terminal pit of depression. They live with T.J.’s well meaning grandmother (Piper Laurie) who is doing her best to look after them. Then Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) inadvertently comes into T.J.'s life and things take a turn for the worse. Hesher has long greasy hair, offensive tattoos and a penchant for walking around topless. Hesher drives a big black run-down van from which he is constantly blasting Metallica. Hesher doesn’t give a shit about anything, doing what he wants when he wants, with a nihilistic attitude towards everything. And so Hesher decides he is moving into T.J.’s Grandma’s garage, without much resistance from anyone except for T.J..
Why is this? Is this Hesher’s way of having a family? Perhaps. He’s clearly a terrible house guest, walking around in his underwear, possessing no table manners and seemingly rebelling against normal societal rules. But the adults don't really object. Surprisingly he manages to bond with the Grandma and seems to respect her. I found that quite interesting. On the other side of things you could say that he sees T.J. like a little brother, sometimes he’s hard on him but at other times he’s trying to help him, even if help comes in the form of pyromania and general destruction. Gordon-Levitt has created an interesting character here – there’s something beneath the surface but you never really know what as there’s no real background given, and we don't know where his family is and why he needs somewhere to live. But that only serves to make him even more dangerously enigmatic. As does the way he makes valid observations and gets his point across, all in his own obliquely pornographic terms. The “one ball” story is a great and funny example.
That’s the other strange thing about Hesher - it's actually quite funny at times. Almost dissonantly so with the depressing storyline, but that levels things out a bit and makes it more interesting. Brochu also does a great job as T.J., who just seems to keep going when life (literally) keeps hurling him off his bike. His one ray of light comes in the form of Nicole (Natalie Portman), a dowdy supermarket check-out girl who saves him from his bully and befriends him. She is older and he quite predictably develops a teenage crush and so is desperate to keep Hesher away from her, which is not easy due to his habit of showing up out of nowhere, like a demented guardian angel who isn't always needed. Portman is fine in this role, if a little underused, and it should also be mentioned that Wilson is pretty decent too – staring into a black hole, not knowing where to go, looking like an unshaven slob. The grief surrounding him is palpable.
So I think that may be one of the reasons why Hesher slipped through the cracks. A preponderance of grief doesn't usually seem to play well to audiences and thus is perceived unmarketable (look at the fantastic Rabbit Hole which didn’t do well, or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close with it's recent lacklustre opening weekend at the UK box office - although it had other issues). It’s a shame that Hesher will be overlooked because it’s a good, interesting film, that’s well acted and has a satisfying conclusion. And to throw out a slightly perverse idea - teaming this up with 50/50 would probably make a good if strangely depressing double feature.