T.J.needs a friend. His mom has just died in a traffic accident. His dad, Paul, has withdrawn into a haze of tranquilizers and group-therapy blather. His grandma is kind but housebound. The school bully likes pushing him facedown onto urinal cakes. The woman in his life, Nicole, a nice 20-something grocery clerk with self-esteem issues, can’t fathom that a 13-year-old could have a life-and-death crush on her.
T.J. needs a friend. But what he gets is a dirtbag heavy-metal nihilist named Hesher. It’s his lucky day, sort of.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is riveting as Hesher’s title character, an ambiguous, intriguing mentor/ menace. We never learn a thing about this lank-haired, hot-tempered force of nature. He shows up whenever T.J. is feeling especially stressed, like Charlie Manson’s notion of a guardian angel.
From Hesher’s first scene, when he is being rousted out of the abandoned housing project where he squats and casually throws a homemade bomb at the security guard in retaliation, his don’t-give-a-damn credentials are indisputable.
He’s not T.J.’s bodyguard. When the boy gets roughed up in the school lavatory, Hesher just looks on, disgusted that T.J. won’t stick up for himself. He’s not a source of street-smart advice; his ramblings sound as if they’re going to resolve into parables, then they turn out to be stoner shaggy dog yarns. Still, for T.J., floundering in a swamp of loss at the beginning of adolescence, a blast of rebellious male energy is what the doctor ordered. Hugs can’t teach you everything.
Writer/director Spencer Susser deserves credit for pushing the coming-of-age story in the direction of black comedy. Like a long-lost big brother who just made parole, Hesher is as likely to maul T.J., taunt him or smack him for smarting off as stand up for him. But it isn’t child abuse; it’s a variant of the rough play you see in wildlife documentaries. In the process of toughening up T.J., Hesher scars the kid a bit but leaves him more healed than he found him.
You can read the story as a psychological fable, with T.J. as the questing ego, Hesher as the uninhibited id and Paul as the disapproving, controlling superego, all learning to cooperate. Or you can just kick back and take it on the level of a wild, gritty, slyly funny Los Angeles fable: Mary Poppins meets Charles Bukowski.
The cast is noteworthy. Rainn Wilson plays Paul straight and sad; Natalie Portman (who produced the film) is touching as geeky cashier Nicole; John Carroll Lynch is gruff but human as the autojunkyard owner who becomes T.J.’s adversary; and Piper Laurie is a gust of pure, weary love as the boy’s grandmother. Devin Brochu gives the muchbattered T.J. the right mix of stubborn pride and wounded self-pity.
And Gordon-Levitt is stellar as the anarchic, tattooed metalhead. His character will stick with you, leaving an impression as raw and visceral as a cigarette burn.