One of the more anticipated features at Sundance this year was Spencer Susser's intriguing "Hesher." Unfortunately, instead of being a potential breakout at the festival, the results are a mixed bag that will recruit a small passionate fan base (can you say immediate cult film?) and heap praise on star Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Set in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, "Hesher" centers on TJ, a young boy (Devin Brochu) whose world has recently come crashing down after the death of his mother in a car accident. His father (a disappointing Rainn Wilson) is in a severe depression and the duo have moved into their grandmother's home (a strong Piper Laurie) where nothing seems to be going resistance. He's got a kid at school threatening to beat him up and then this, um, anarchist squatter shows up - Hesher (Gordon-Levitt) - with seemingly no resistance from either his dad or grandmother.
The imagery and synopsis made it seem like "Hesher" could be a dark thriller in the vein of "Cape Fear," but it's hardly that. While there are moments of good, but not great tension the picture is more of an unsettling drama with more comedy bits than you might think. Unfortunately, the set pieces (Hesher and TJ set fire to a car, etc.) don't seem to mix well with the laughs which are 99% provided by Gordon-Levitt.
A lot of credit for what works in "Hesther" has to go to Levitt. To many audiences who know him from "500 Days of Summer" this performance will come as a surprise even though he's displayed range like this before in films like "Mysterious Skin" and "The Lookout." With long hair, tattoos and no qualms about walking around a good portion of the film half-naked, Levitt dominates every scene he's in. And that may be part of the problem, because "Hesher" really isn't the title character's story, it's TJ's.
Sadly, the film has an almost useless plotline where Natalie Portman joins the "fun" as a frumpy grocery store clerk (wearing glasses is meant to mute her natural beauty) that TJ has a crush on and Hesher finds amusing. Whether TJ sees her as an adolescent crush, a momentary substitute for his departed mother or both isn't truly clear. the only point of her inclusion is to create a point of conflict in the film's third act that comes a little out of left field.
What "Hesher" does tell the industry is that Susser clearly has talent. The concept of the film is original and the idea of having a character like Hesher in a family setting is relatively unique. However, he may have needed more experience balancing tone or another pass or two at the screenplay to make it all work more effectively.
Overall, "Hesher" shouldn't be labeled a disaster and it's not a bad film. It just doesn't completely work outside of a film festival setting. As noted, the film will have fans, but it's hard to imagine whatever distributor takes a chance on it -- and who those suitors could be are very unclear -- finding a tremendous amount of commercial potential in it. So for those of you playing at home outside of the big cities, "Hesher" may not hit your local theater, but it will certainly make some noise on DVD and VOD down the road.
As Sundance heats up, look for breaking news and commentary daily on HitFix.com/Sundance. For the latest, follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.