Festival

Sundance Film Festival

2012

HESHER: a textbook of indie-film blunders and cliches.

HERSHER, official selection of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

I’m reluctant to add to what I suspect will be a critical pile-on against HESHER, at least based on the reactions after yesterday’s mobbed premiere at the Eccles Theater. But I’ll call it out only because its problems seem to be symptomatic. Despite its appealing cast, Spencer Susser’s HESHER is not just familiar in its failings but weirdly comprehensive, practically a textbook of indie-film blunders and cliches.

This is the kind of movie, all too common among rookie directors, that is so enamored of its cute concept — in this case, anarchist as grief therapist — that it never bothers to develop or explore that concept, or even test its basic plausibility. (I sense another one looming in OBSELIDIA, a dramatic-competition title about an encyclopedia salesman who endeavors to write “a compendium of obsolete things.”) The title character in HESHER, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a sullen, shirtless pyromaniac with a dirty mind and a huge middle finger tattooed on his back — which more or less sums up the film’s approach.

Hesher’s sole purpose in this scenario is to shake up the numb existence of prepubescent TJ (Devin Brochu), who recently lost his mother in an accident and lives with his zombie-like father (Rainn Wilson) and his semi-senile grandmother (poor Piper Laurie). Switching between self-congratulatory provocation and makwish sentiment, HESHER goes for cheap laughs (grandma takes a bong hit) and cheap pathos (an on-cue flashback to the fatal accident). It’s being sold as the story of a lovable anarchist, but it’s hard to credit this greasy-haired, foul-mouthed vandal with anything resembling a political philosophy. His anti-social posturing is perhaps meant to evoke Nietzschean ubermensch Tyler Durden, and at moments you wonder if Hersher, as in FIGHT CLUB, is simply an alter-ego projection of a traumatized protagonist. But why bother to figure this out if the film doesn’t? Even an actor as intelligent and charismatic as Gordon-Levitt can’t make sense of the Hesher figure. He’s not a person, and not even a coherent metaphor, but a pose, a set of one-note quirks writ large.