PopcornBiz's Scott Ross is reporting from the annual film festival in Sundance, Utah, where new independent films are unveiled.
With his outstanding performance in "Hesher" coming just a year after "(500) Days of Summer," Joseph Gordon-Levitt has assured that he will not be typecast at any time in the near future.
As the title character, Gordon-Levitt stomps around in his underwear, his torso emblazoned with tattoos, smoking dope, listening to Motorhead and generally letting his freak flag fly in ways the rest of us only dream of -- he is pure Id.
"I was always fascinated with these kind of heavy metal characters that seemed to hide in the shadows and smoke cigarettes and scare me," said writer-director Spencer Sussman following Thursday night's screening. "I kinda based the back story on a friend of mine I had when I was young. Basically he got in a lot of trouble and his parents weren't really looking after him and eventually he was sent to live with his grandmother... they hated each other and she didn't want to look after her troubled teenage grandson and eventually she died and he kinda had nobody -- and that's kinda where my friend's story ends.... I thought, well what happens to someone like that?"
Hesher crosses paths with 13-year-old TJ, who is trying to deal with the loss of his mother in a car accident and the drug-fueled state of near catatonia his father has sunk into since the tragedy. Before TJ, dad or TJ's grandma knows what's happened, Hesher is living in the garage and joining them for meals. As the film unfolds, TJ tries to find the balance between Hesher, who feeds every impulse, consequences be damned, and his father, who has completely shut down.
Devin Brochu as TJ is fearless -- not since Gumby has a character bounced back from so much, physically and emotionally.
"He was just so brave, he was just willing to go to those places... the great thing about working with kids is, I think when we grow up, when we get older we kind of move those feelings far away, we hide them and kids can just access them, they're right there," said Sussman.
The casting of Rainn Wilson as TJ's father is just about as counter-intuitive as tapping Gordon-Levitt to play a long-haired stoner, but again, it works. There is not a whiff of Dwight Schrute in the performance.
Natalie Portman's' role was actually written with her in mind, according to Sussman, who added that she liked the script so much she also signed on to help produce the film. She, too, is cast against type, playing a mousy register clerk who becomes friends with TJ after she saves him from a bully.
Rounding out the cast is the barely recognizable Piper Laurie, who's come a long way from her days riding shotgun with Fast Eddie Felson. She gives a great turn as TJ's ailing grandmother who is heartbroken by what's become of her family and strikes a bond with Hesher that no one else manages to.
"Hesher" is dark and sad and funny and emotionally powerful, though Sussman maybe pushes his luck with the narrative towards the end -- honestly, how many days a year does it rain in LA? In fact, much of the final 10 minutes is overwrought. But the crowd cheered and applauded at the end, and it was hard to argue.