“Hesher:” Signs of Life in a Home Plagued by Death

Spencer Susser’s Hesher is a great little independent movie with a hard steel exterior and a tender heart. The movie features Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a kind of heavy-metal Shaman who arrives on the scene in a beat-up black van, a blur of tattoos and long hair. He barrels through the movie like a hurricane of rock, porn, flames, and anarchistic glee.

Hesher meets up with a young boy TJ who recently lost his mom in a car accident. After he inserts himself into TJ’s grieving family and helps them process their emotional garbage, the movie turns out to be less about a heavy-metal thrasher guy in a beat-to-shit van than it is about death, life, and surviving.

In black jeans, long black hair, and a spray of homemade tattoos, Hesher comes into TJ’s family to say “fuck you” to suffocating grief, and to bring life back into a home plagued by death. He teaches the family to let go. And letting go in this movie is provided by one hell of an entertaining guy who delights in burning things, smoking weed, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, and telling  profoundly brilliant stories about snakes, mice and his own testicles.

The film opens with the power chords of electric guitar punctuating Hesher’s name in bold black and white before cutting directly to TJ pedaling his bicycle down the street in a chaotic flurry. TJ hauls ass through the streets of the San Fernando Valley on his bike as he chases a tow truck hauling what turns out to be his dead mother’s wrecked Volvo. This is where we are situated in the movie – inside a boy and his grief in the middle of the bleak smog-filled L.A. valley.

TJ crashes his bike into cars and tumbles into the street.  He climbs back on, pedals some more and crashes some more. He is caught in a whirlwind of grief coming out of his feet as they push the pedals harder and faster. The unsteady camera follows TJ and we feel his desperation. Eventually, after he has found the Volvo in a used car lot and locked himself inside it, he gets back on his bike and ends up in a subdivision full of empty half-built homes – dead domestic spaces.

After crashing his bike on some road debris, TJ picks up a rock in a moment of blind fury and hurls it through the window of one of the skeletal homes. This is when we meet Hesher. He rises from the depths of the dark house as if he is being awakened from a cave. Stumbling into the hazy sunlight, his long hair dangling like some kind of creature from the deep, he violently yanks TJ into the house. Indeed, TJ has awakened life underneath the dead domestic space, and from that moment the movie builds to an emotional intensity that shows us how to bring life back to a home plagued by death and to heal pain through anarchy.

At first we’re not sure how to take this movie. Hesher is hilarious as he drives around in his black van haunting and taunting TJ. Hesher is funny when he inserts himself into TJs home, does his laundry, stomps around in his jockey shorts, eats the family’s food and takes up residence in their garage. But the more we get to know the cast of characters in this movie and experience their relationship to Hesher, the more we realize how sincere and tender this movie really is, even when it’s heart is cleverly packed inside Hesher’s often hilarious view of the world as a playground full of porn, weed, beer, and sex. Sometimes we need Hesher’s brand of anarchy to break out of a life deadened by terrible loss.

The characters in the movie are played impeccably by perfectly cast actors. The young boy Devin Brochu plays TJ to maximum emotional effect. Simultaneously vulnerable, pissed off, tender, and angry, Brochu’s TJ is torn in so many directions at once that it’s a wonder he doesn’t explode. He’s getting his ass beaten and bullied at school; his mother has just died in a car wreck; his father is strung out on pills and sleeps on the sofa all day; and he’s living in his grandma’s house which is suffocating in the pall of his father’s drugged-out grief.

Brochu’s facial expressions fluctuate between a terrible sadness, innocent yearning, and finally all-consuming fury as Hesher prompts TJ to release his grief and loss. Indeed as TJ’s emotions come to a head and he lets the full force of his rage out, standing in the rain, scraggly hair covering his face, he even begins to look like Hesher. Because of Brochu’s acting, we care about this kid and feel both everything he is holding in and everything he is letting out.

Rainn Wilson plays TJ’s dad Paul to perfection. Passed out on the sofa with bottles of pills strewn on the coffee table or stumbling around in a pill-numbed stupor in his saggy sweatpants and dirty old sweater, he gives an impeccable portrait of grief turned to atrophy and decay. His beard sprouts from his face as if the cluttered garbage of pain from inside him were pushing out of his very pores.

Paul’s mother Madeline, TJ’s grandmother, is played with tragic sincerity by Piper Laurie. Wearing a housecoat and a set of twinkling eyes that could make you laugh or break your heart, Piper Laurie’s Grandma walks the fine line between denial of how bad things are and the strength of character it takes to put a positive spin on everything in order to make her family’s existence bearable. In the smallest of expressions, we see her love for her family and her grief over their grief.

Natalie Portman plays Nicole, a checkout girl at a local grocery store who “saves” TJ from a school bully. Portman perfectly embodies the nuances of Nicole’s class – the way she delivers her lines, her facial expressions, and her body language. She plays Nicole which such perfect attention to her character and socio-economic demographic that it’s hard to recognize her as Natalie Portman.

In the midst of these beautifully sketched characters we have Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Hesher.  Gordon-Levitt inhabits the role with his entire being. It feels as if the fictional character Hesher has taken possession of Gordon-Levitt’s very body and spirit. Every single movement of his body, glint of his eyes, mumbled word, and swish of his long black hair exudes a penetrating defiance. His entire body is a tornado of expression, at one moment sparkling with quiet mischief and at another exploding in anarchic fury.

But Gordon-Levitt’s Hesher isn’t all about anarchy and fun. What really makes his performance brilliant are the moments when we see beneath his heavy-metal surface, witnessing glimpses of vulnerability and caring. In a single glance, his defenses will suddenly come down and the real raw human emotions underneath his hard exterior are exposed.

As we first experience the characters in Hesher, we’re not sure how to feel about them. On the one hand, their situation seems exaggerated and humorous. Maybe we’re supposed to laugh. Maybe this is ironic commentary. (See the films of Todd Solondz.) But as we get to know the characters better, they become more and more real, and we realize that they are entirely sincere. Sure, there are moments when we laugh really hard, but there are also plenty of moments when we feel a tenderness for these people.

Unlike Solondz’s films (which Hesher evokes on an exterior level), there is no sense of meanness or savage irony here. Yes, we laugh at situations in the movie, but our laughter is sincere.  We’re not making fun of the characters, but recognizing them for their vulnerability, for the real human situations in which they find themselves, and for the familiarity communicated through their interactions with Hesher, the seemingly over-the-top heavy metal anarchist. Under the surface, the characters in this movie, even Hesher, are too human and sympathetic to be the butt of either the director’s jokes or our own.

So let’s talk about who Hesher is. He enters TJ’s life and his grandma’s home, and, despite acting like an anarchistic mess, quickly shows that he is there to clean house. The very first thing he does is go to the laundry room, strip down to his jockey shorts, and do his laundry (including hilariously putting his jeans into the washer with the belt still attached to them and clanking on the side of the machine). Indeed, Hesher occupies TJ’s home to deal with everyone’s dirty laundry, to air out the confines of a house that is suffocating under the pall of death, and to process the wreckage that is choking TJ and his dad.

The ways in which Susser shows us how Hesher cleans house are hilarious and brilliant. A kind of a Cat In The Hat character, Hesher cleans up by making messes, by creating anarchy to counteract a numb routine. In the process, he helps TJ and his dad reconcile the death of TJ’s mom, reconcile with each other, and get on with the business of living instead of dying under the heaviness of grief.

Before Hesher enters the house, we experience the suffocating atmosphere of the home via a television documentary on elephants playing on the console TV. The living room is more like a tomb with its dark pharmaceutically saturated cloud coupled with the blurry elephants making their bizarre sounds like some kind of guttural moaning. The very first thing Hesher does (besides his laundry) is sit down on the sofa and flip through the TV channels.

When he discovers that there are only four channels, he hilariously climbs the telephone pole (like some kind of L.A. monkey), hacks into the cable box, and brings more channels onto the TV. He flips through the channels, settles on one playing soft-core porn, and says, “See, now you have more channels.” Exactly! Creating more channels for TJ and his dad is what Hesher’s job is. They need something more than dreary grief and the moaning of elephants in their home.

In another scene, Hesher brings TJ and Nicole to an unoccupied house that is for sale. He storms into the backyard, pushes TJ and Nicole into the swimming pool and then proceeds to play “Trash Compactor.” He mimics a scene from the original Star Wars when Han Solo (Hesher), Princess Leah (Nicole) and Luke Skywalker (TJ) are in danger of getting crushed by a trash compactor. Hesher drags everything he can grab and throws it into the swimming pool – a barbecue, a bicycle, potted plants, a giant stuffed marlin. He flails about quoting lines from Star Wars while playing “trash compactor.”

Hesher eventually lights the diving board on fire, jumps into the swimming pool, and then leaves TJ and Nicole to fend for themselves. The diving board burns in splendid anarchic beauty, brought to life by a can of lighter fluid. On the surface, it seems like mindless chaos, but reading underneath the scene, we realize that Hesher is his own kind of trash compactor. He has taken an evacuated domestic space – the empty house – and brought it back to life by turning it upside down. And that’s what he does in TJ’s house. In the witty reference to Star Wars, we also realize that part of Hesher’s job as trash compactor is to initiate reconciliation between TJ and his father (see Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader for reference).

Hesher’s role as emotional Trash Compactor is delivered quite beautifully in two scenes in which Gordon-Levitt, with perfect stoner affect, comically delivers two brilliant allegories. One of the scenes is when Hesher is doing bong hits with TJ’s Grandma and tells a story of a snake who dies from starvation because he is afraid of mice. One mouse stands up to the snake and punches him in the nose, and from that moment on, the mice reign and the snake dies. Grandma asks, “Who is TJ? The mouse or the snake?” Hesher says, “I don’t know.”

But, Hesher certainly is putting a little boxing mice power into TJ. We see that when TJ literally kicks Hesher in the balls in one scene and Hesher takes delight in being kicked. (He’s succeeding in giving TJ balls when TJ kicks him in the balls.)  We see it when TJ calls his dad on his shit for being a pill popping depression hole, when TJ stands up to the bully so he can locate his mother’s car, and finally when TJ reconciles with his father and they move forward in life, not letting the snake of depression and grief kill them.

In another brilliant allegory, Hesher shows up at Grandma’s funeral and tells the story of blowing up a gas tank in an old Chevy and losing his “nut” in the process. Sloshing beer out of his can, Hesher recites the story of his great testicular revelation, the time when he was taking a shit and suddenly had an epiphany of appreciation for his living “nut.” “I have one good nut!” he proclaims.  He looks at TJ’s dad and says, “You lost your wife. You lost your mom. I lost my nut.” We understand that TJ is the living “nut” and that Hesher is saying it’s time to stop obsessing on the dead nut and get on with appreciating life with the living nut.

Yes, the story is told in a way that makes it amusing as hell. We can’t help but laugh. But we also understand the sincerity of what Hesher is saying and recognize the brilliance of his words. Talk about a heavy metal Buddah.  Sure, Hesher stomps through the movie blowing things up, talking about fucking and shitting, smoking weed and banging his head to heavy metal. But it’s his anarchy that makes it possible for him to understand a hell of a lot about life that TJ’s family was missing before he entered the picture.

Certainly, Hesher’s brand of redemption is more interesting to swallow than some sugar-coated mainstream Hollywood production. In fact it is more sincere and believable. We are able to feel the movie’s tender heart more intimately because it is not encased in the glowing trap of Hollywood emotionalism. Rather, it comes to us via the bleak realism of Valley smog, a cloud of pot smoke, lewd porno jokes, and burning diving boards.

In between Hesher’s anarchic minimalism – he can say so much with so little –
and the bleakness of the surroundings in which he operates, the movie is filled with moments of great tenderness and emotional power. That is what makes it so brilliant. The scenes between Hesher and Grandma are particularly touching. Whether the two of them are sitting at the kitchen table laughing about how Fluffo can fuck up a pie or sharing bong hits in Grandma’s bedroom, there is an incredible tenderness between Hesher and Grandma.

The build-up to Grandma’s death via her interactions with Hesher is so quiet and so emotionally understated that when Hesher discovers her dead body, the impact of that moment – Grandma’s body lying on the floor by the closet and the look in Hesher’s eyes as he looks down on it – is infinitely more dramatic then some overblown Hollywood death scene.

One of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the movie occurs when TJ breaks into a wrecking yard, finds his mother’s smashed car, climbs inside it and flashes back to the moments leading up to the car accident that killed his mother. In a way, the movie is a kind of quest narrative (not unlike the aforementioned Star Wars) in which TJ is out to reclaim his mother’s wrecked car and hoping that if he does, he can process his grief and not entirely lose his mom.

When TJ enters the wrecking yard, the smashed bodies of cars tower all around him, glowing under L.A. street lights at night. When he climbs the tower of cars, TJ is climbing the tower of his grief. He sits in the backseat of the wrecked Volvo, and we relive the last few moments of his mother’s life which comes to a halt when their car is hit with an enormous crash that kills her. The movie then cuts abruptly from the jarring sound of the impact to TJ awaking to the sound of a crane lifting the wrecked Volvo in order to compact it. TJ screams, falling out of the car and hanging onto its wrecked body for dear life. This scene is utterly heart-rending, this image of extreme grief and pain – a young boy swinging from the destroyed body of his mother’s car as if he is holding onto her actual wrecked body.

Much of the emotional power of the film is delivered through the terrific cinematography. Capturing the bleak southern California haze and Valley smog in a myriad of reflections and refractions, the look of the film is uncompromisingly real. The exterior shots perfectly capture the unglamorous side of L.A. – a skyline cluttered with decaying tract homes, power lines and sickly palm trees;  streets filled with dive donut shops and used car lots; alleys cluttered with stacks of old tires.

Nicole’s apartment building is called the Sierra Holiday, which is ironic since its bleak L.A. exterior shows in no uncertain terms that her life is no holiday.  Charlie’s Food Town, the working-class supermarket where Nicole works, is a far cry from the gourmet markets of West L.A. Among other things, Hesher is an L.A. movie, but this is not the LA that Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks occupy. This is the LA where the people we never see in movies live and die.

Taking place in the mid-80s, Hesher’s sets, costumes and mise-en-scène work together to paint a picture not just of emotional realism but of economic realism. From the clothing  (TJ’s red sweatshirt, Nicole’s ten dollar shorts jumper and big glasses) to the cars (Nicole’s beat-up Chevette) to the interior details (the TV set, the glasses in the cabinet, and the knickknacks in the house) we see that this isn’t affluent L.A., Ikea L.A, or hip and trendy L.A.

This is the San Fernando Valley. It’s the L.A. where people are just making do, and some of them not so well (e.g. Nicole). Also, the mise-en-scène does a great job of painting an emotional picture as well as an economic one. For example, in a scene when TJ and his dad go to a group grief counseling session, the stacks of metal framed chairs in the background become stand-ins for the piles of grief for the dead as well as the dead lives of the living who occupy the room.

Set during the Reagan presidency, Hesher is full of little moments that allude to the economics of the working class that Reagan’s policies impacted, such as the scene when Nicole complains that the supermarket won’t give her enough hours (e.g. because then they won’t have to pay her benefits) or the scene when TJ stuffs an envelope with cash trying to buy the car back. Underneath the grief, there is an economic realism to this movie that makes Hesher’s anarchy more than a little appealing.

The film’s tight screenplay also adds to the emotional impact. There is not a bit of fat in this film. Every scene is perfectly framed photographically, and the writing is as lean as Hesher himself in delivering what it needs to deliver and then moving to the next scene.  There are so many interactions between Hesher and TJ and the other characters, but they are all just as long as they need to be for maximum effect.

Grandma’s death scene provides a brilliant example of how the film is so tightly composed and uses so little to accomplish so much. It begins with Hesher and Grandma getting high the night before, which brings the emotional dynamics of the movie to the surface. Then it cuts very briefly to a shot of Hesher bending over to pick up some smashed plates and food from the kitchen floor, which in one single shot shows Hesher’s tenderness and vulnerability. It then cuts to the following morning when TJ steals his dad’s ATM card (touching on economics) and then peeks in on Grandma who is quietly sorting through a closet (creating order out of emotional chaos).

Later in the sequence we see Hesher pouring a bowl of cereal, then walking into the other room. The camera focuses on the expression on Hesher’s face and then follows his eyes to an image of Grandma’s dead body on the floor of the closet. It is a quick shot that captures the finality and tragedy of death with clean efficiency. Finally, Grandma’s death culminates in the funeral scene. First a friend and neighbor is asked to speak, and we think that the scene will go on forever, but instead, the dialogue is distilled and concentrated to deliver the most emotional impact.

Quoting Grandma, the neighbor recites, “Life is like walking in the rain. You can hide and take cover, or you can just get wet.” Certainly, Hesher prefers to just get wet, which is basically what he says in his testicle speech that follows the neighbor’s talk. Finally, the film’s most beautiful emotional moment occurs when Hesher announces that he is going to take Grandma for a walk and pushes Grandma’s coffin out into the streets of L.A. where TJ and his dad join him.

Sun filters through the smoggy air as these three guys push the casket down the streets through traffic. The scene is monumentally beautiful. It brings together the culmination of tension, grief, and pain that have built throughout the movie, and it provides an incredibly moving vision of acceptance, reconciliation, and redemption. Tears pour from TJ and his father’s eyes as the father, the son, and the Heavy Metal Shaman wheel Grandma’s coffin under the palm tree-speckled brown sky. Cars pass by; traffic lights turn from red to green; the sun begins to sink on the hazy horizon; and Grandma’s coffin sails through the streets, confirming how emotional freedom has been obtained through Hesher’s anarchic wisdom doused in beer and gasoline.

At first I thought the movie was going to end with this scene. It seems so beautiful and perfect, but the film cuts back to TJ’s house. In the final scene, TJ’s dad shaves all that hair off his face (the sprouting of his grief). Clean-shaven, he leads TJ out to the driveway to show him something that Hesher has left behind. Sitting in the driveway is the perfectly compressed cube of TJ’s dead mom’s car.

Hesher retrieved the car from the wrecking yard, where it was turned into a neat cube just like something you’d pull from a trash compactor. Of course, it’s really Hesher who is the trash compactor. He came into TJ’s life, wreaked havoc, and turned everything upside down like a whirlwind of chaos. But in the end, in his messy way, he successfully cleaned-up the emotional garbage that was suffocating TJ’s home. Hesher cleans out the dirty laundry and tightly compacts the emotional trash so life can go on.

Like some kind of long-haired pot-smoking Deus Ex Machina, Hesher comes into TJ’s life and cures his pain through heavy metal, porn, anarchy and fire. There is a tremendous amount of honesty in Hesher’s uncompromising anarchy, and that honesty is what leads TJ and his father to a fresh start. Certainly healing pain through anarchy is more appealing to me than healing pain through a lot of cheesy meaningless Hallmarkisms or self-help books. I’ll take Hesher’s burning diving boards over that lifeless stack of chairs in the group counseling room. I’ll also take this small independent film over Hollywood’s big budget mainstream portraits of loss and redemption any day. Hesher rocks.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn, Avanti-Popolo, and the Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published a book of her art Mapping The Inside Out and is finishing a photo essay book on copper mining towns in Southern Arizona. Someday she’ll finish her memoir book about her teenage life on the streets in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.