“Hesher” brings heavy metal to the indie film scene

The new film, by director Spencer Susser, features Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular rocker/vagrant

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He is Hesher. He is tattooed, with hair down to his elbows and a dirty grin. He likes to fuck people’s shit up – and not just their stuff.

According to the Urban Dictionary, hesher means some kind of metalhead-stoner-type. Here, Hesher is the reheated dregs of grunge and everything terrible about the ’90s. He has a beat-up old van, too. “Hesher” is also the title of Spencer Susser’s new film, which is basically your standard indie fare.

Like an apparition with ADD, Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) floats in and out of the lives of the Forneys, a depressed middle American family whose members don’t have much to say to each other.

This is Any Place, USA. It is a beige world of junkyards, dirty swimming pools and sad checkout lanes. This is a town full of people who lose their shit at a fender-bender. This is a place with dollar groceries you imagine people shopping in after dark, ambling along with their carts to the hum of frozen food cases and one-hit wonders. You can see dreams slowly collapsing here, like the demolition of a building.

Wise-eyed and middle school age, TJ (Devin Brochu) is a boy who has lost his mother. He lives with his father (Rainn Wilson), who is permanently affixed to the couch in a fog or a fugue state. They share a single-story home with TJ’s grandmother (Piper Laurie), who wears faded floral nightgowns and smokes medical marijuana to curb the nausea.

And when Hesher enters, ex nihilo, he strips down to his underwear and plops on the couch with a cigarette and the channel changer. Nobody says a word. It’s not that he doesn’t exist to the Forneys – it’s just that his presence is trivial compared to the lunatic things already happening in their lives.

TJ soon becomes Hesher’s little protégé, doing evil deeds with sharpies and pliers. The ogre-ish bully of the school halls, whose father owns a local car lot, is after him. But Hesher isn’t there to help. He pushes the Forneys to the end of their ropes, occasionally yanking back the slack for his own pointless amusement. And this is how the gag works for most of the film’s running time. Cue the rain, the slow motion, the catharsis of beard-trimming.

The film “Hesher” is like a slow train of miseries that occasionally, when it lets go of itself, derails into off-the-map, teasingly good territory. But these moments, begrudgingly enough, only come in small doses. The scenes with Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Piper Laurie are brilliantly realized by the actors, but such moments are few and far between.

Natalie Portman fits just right, returning to her “Garden State” role but older and jaded. With grandma glasses and girlish eloquence, she is perfectly suited for the role of Nicole, a girl who only works 15 hours a week and has lost sight of herself. So of course she’s charmed by this Hesher specimen, as he sets fire to a diving board and cannonballs into a stranger’s pool. The guy sends a real jolt through these flatliners, to be sure.

Levitt is too one-note here as a lean, mean, stress-making (and fart-ripping) machine. And when he tries to do good, it feels rushed and lacks motivation. A hesher with a heart of gold is harder to buy than a hooker with one. With no real life of his own, Hesher lives to stir things up, occasionally sipping the stew just for good measure.

There’s not much to like about “Hesher,” but there’s much to want to like. It’s not that it’s bad – it’s just not good. But the inability to explain the feelings of discontent Susser’s film inspires would probably suit Hesher’s mythos.