The title character of "Hesher" enters the lives of a grieving family approximately like the rolling boulder that opens the film "Sexy Beast."
Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has long black hair, a proclivity for shirtlessness and a giant tattoo of a middle finger on his back. He drives around in a beat-up black van blasting Metallica, smoking pot and doing what he pleases. His entrances are comically announced with a loud, metal guitar riff.
When 13-year-old TJ (Devin Brochu) inadvertently reveals that Hesher is a squatter in a half-constructed condo, Hesher believes it only fair to move into the shabby suburban home where TJ lives with his father (Rainn Wilson) and grandmother (Piper Laurie).
The house is in a stupor of malaise, still mourning the death of TJ's mother two months earlier. The heavily-medicated father is nearly catatonic. TJ is obsessed with keeping their red station wagon, wrecked from the fatal accident that left him with a cast on his arm.
The film's protagonist, TJ is a tough, scrappy kid who's been left in a vacuum of parental oversight to fend for himself, including against a school bully (Brandon Hill). He's saved from one beating by a woman who interferes (Natalie Portman, who also co-produces). Awkwardly inserted into the film, she's a lonely cashier who, like everyone else in "Hesher," could use a little fun.
Hesher is a kind of demented wake-up call: catharsis by heavy metal. He's similar to Brad Pitt's character in "Fight Club": a grungy, brash, violent force of life who revels in shattering convention and blowing smoke in the face of talk-it-out therapy. Hesher, too, seems almost a fictional projection (something the film alludes to).
Though unmistakably shot on the asphalt backstreets of Los Angeles, the film is intentionally not set anywhere specific. And its gritty texture and drab interiors seem more '70s than contemporary.
It's the feature film debut for Spencer Susser, the lone American in the loose Australian collective of filmmakers called Blue-Tongue Films. Susser wrote the script with David Michod (the director of last year's critical hit "Animal Kingdom"), working from the story by Brian Charles Frank.
What most comes through for Susser is a talent for working with actors. The young Brochu is an honest 13-year-old, biking everywhere and distrustful of every adult. Laurie is touchingly sincere, even as she grows senile.
Gordon-Levitt, though, is clearly having the most fun. He stomps around, hardly ever noticing those around him except for an occasional, sly sideways glance or a mean stare. By just his physicality, Gordon-Levitt is nearly unrecognizable - even when half naked.
The lone exception is Wilson's overwrought, one-note performance as the grieving father. The talented Wilson isn't given enough range. He comes off as simply pitiful, and nothing else.
Like some other Blue-Tongue movies, "Hesher" can be gratuitous in its violence. As a movie, it's generally mangy and there are obvious missteps (like the clichéd flashback scene to the car accident). But "Hesher" nevertheless manages to be more emotionally true than the majority of the films coming out of Hollywood.
Warts and all, "Hesher" is still a good shot in the arm.
The Newmarket Films release, is rated R for disturbing violent behavior, sexual content including graphic dialogue, pervasive language and drug content - some in the presence of a child. Running time: 105 minutes.