A badass loner employs his own peculiarly noxious ways of pulling a boy out of paralyzing grief in “Hesher.” Debuting director Spencer Susser redeems his willfully antisocial central character via a climactic act of charity bordering on love, but prior to that goes out of his way to spike every scene with gratuitous provocations and repetitive vulgarities that become old very quickly. Still, the violent anarchist with a giant upraised middle finger tattooed on his back played with manifest enthusiasm by Joseph Gordon-Levitt will appeal to more than a few young males, giving this indie with 22 producers a good shot at an active commercial life.
“Hesher” is far from the first picture to make something of its own from the basic premise of Jean Renoir’s “Boudu Saved from Drowning,” that being the invasion of a household by a wayward, unstoppable, transformative force of nature. Here, the interloper is a Charles Manson lookalike with a tat on his chest of a guy blowing his brains out, who, without benefit of an invitation, plunks himself down in a modest San Fernando Valley home whose occupants are suffocating with the depression of mourning.
Prepubescent T.J. (Devin Brochu) goes through the motions of attending school, but is obsessed with retrieving from salvage the car in which his mother died in a wreck two months earlier. Dad (Rainn Wilson) has turned into a vegetable, while Grandma (Piper Laurie) is at least able to put food into the mouths of the sad, dysfunctional males. In a particularly grating subplot, little T.J. is violently bullied for unknown reasons by a much bigger boy, and Dad’s half-hearted effort to participate with his son in “transformational grief therapy” washes out.
In this menagerie of emotional zombies, Hesher has free rein. Physically threatening and scarily temperamental, the long-haired heavy-metal freak lounges around in his underwear, watches porn, fills the house with variations on the F-word and soon gets T.J. in enough trouble to land him at the police station. Never supplied with an ounce of backstory, Hesher is a hyperactive volcano that erupts several times daily; whatever the reasons, he betrays no trace of giving a damn about anyone or anything.
One vaguely bright spot in T.J.’s life is a literally accidental relationship he forms with impoverished grocery cashier Nicole (co-producer Natalie Portman, sporting outsized Sarah Palin-style glasses that give her a queasily strong resemblance to — Sarah Palin). Typically, Hesher spoils the budding friendship by meanly badgering the boy about when he’s going to make it sexual, while in his spare time giving Grandma pointers on how to use a bong.
Young auds who reflexively find this sort of flagrant transgressiveness amusing will no doubt take the picture to heart. But the problem with the script by Susser and David Michod, working from a story by Brian Charles Frank, is that Hesher’s uncouth behavior is so aggressively pushed to single-minded, crudely exploitative effect. The ending is meant to have made the ordeal all worth it, but while the payoff does possess a certain purgative effect akin to the benefits of tough love, the value of the journey for the audience, as opposed to the characters, is highly questionable.
Levitt, in a flamboyant about-face from “500 Days of Summer,” is undeniably charismatic as the from-nowhere wild man whom you’d never want to meet in real life, but who is memorable after a fashion onscreen. An appealing blond kid, Brochu holds his own and then some as he gets into innumerable physical and verbal scrapes.
Tech package is OK, with colors in the interiors overly subdued even for the sought-after mood.