Hesher is not a nice guy. He is rough with children, views women only in terms of whatever sexual pleasures they can provide and is a moocher with no jobs who has no qualms about destroying private property. On the other hand he might just be the homeless rocker equivalent of Mr. Miyagi, noisily allowing situations to unfold that will teach the new people in his life something about letting go. It is a risky balance for Spencer Susser to undertake in his feature debut and, against all odds, it manages to succeed with a pastiche of great casting and an unapologetic slant towards being anti-touchy-feely. Until it needs to be.
Young T.J. (Devin Brochu) is living in a house of sadness. And it's no wonder since when we first see him he's chasing down a tow truck to a junkyard where the remains of the family car will eventually be put to rest. His mom once sat in that vehicle. His dad, Paul (Rainn Wilson), sits in a funk all day, unshaven since the accident and only leaving the house to pick his boy up from school while his mom (Piper Laurie) quietly fixes their meals. Shortly after getting his cast off, T.J. has another accident and, in his frustration, awakens the sleeping shirtless giant of the unfinished housing complex. Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), with his cover blown, begins following around T.J. and soon settles into his house, washing his clothes and eating their food to almost no resistance from the nearly catatonic inhabitants.
The boy, meanwhile, has made an enemy out of Dustin (Brendan Hill), a schoolmate from the junkyard who has made it his personal vendetta to bully the kid. Amidst the cornering and chasing is a blessing in disguise in the form of Nicole (Natalie Portman), a mousy supermarket clerk who rescues T.J. when all Hesher seems to do is watch and let the kid take his lickings. She is also privy to being ignored and under appreciated, which is just an extension to T.J.'s already developed crush on her company. Hesher sees things in extremes though and usually vocalizes them in a coarsest manner possible. Is he really trying to turn T.J. into a man or merely molding him into a narrow, devil-may-care, view of the world? Fudge if I know.
And in some respects we are not meant to be pigeonholed into the same ol' "the teacher becomes the taught" experience of emotional bonding. Susser takes a wise approach early on in establishing Hesher as someone who, we get ahead of ourselves into thinking, is just a manifestation of the boy's psyche; the Tyler Durden dark side bringing him into the light. Quickly noticed by other characters we are now forced to commit to Hesher as an actual human being rather than an amalgam of pre-pubescent rage. That will be uneasy for viewers who don't find his destructive habits and salty tongue all that endearing. Consider Hesher as just the devil on T.J.'s shoulder though and the consistency of his behavioral ticks (occasionally queued by a humorous rock chord) may make it impossible to turn on him.
Certainly there are better role models than Hesher, a name translated as a grungy mulleted stoner who may still live with his parents. In-between the inappropriateness of our laughter, however, is the resounding sadness surrounding T.J. Dad is only awakened from his round-the-clock quiet time when his son is at odds. The interest in Nicole is headed nowhere but the friend zone and even that is left in question. Grandma appears to be counting every step she has left on this earth, but is going to use every one of them if it means some momentary distraction from the family's grief. There's something quietly heartbreaking about Laurie's performance and it's so refreshing to see a bong hit in a film that actually means something rather than used as just another cheap laugh or hip character trait.
Hesher is two parts funny, equally parts touching and maybe one part disturbing. The anarchy encompassing the bully character reaches a dubious point of violence that should have everyone wincing and at least half wondering just how old this Dustin guy is with his fancy car and lack of company at home. Hesher is not the character tapped for redemption though. T.J. may learn only lessons of further heartbreak and betrayal along the way. But even if it takes well until a final monologue (as uncouth as anything Hesher has said beforehand) for father and son to come to terms with things, we bear witness to a climactic scene that movingly bridges the complacency of sorrow for the departed with the simple pleasures of spending time with the beloved that are still here.