The wildly unruly, impulsive and destructive Hesher barges in on a family struggling to cope with recent tragedy, and writer/director Spencer Susser would have you believe it's a form of extended shock therapy, which may just help snap Paul Forney out of his deep depression and offer his neglected son TJ some companionship, help and direction.
It's got a great cast, and there's plenty of riveting suspense drawn from Hesher's violent outbursts, crass pronouncements and strange swings between the roles of destroyer and serene mystic. It's almost like an episode of Kung Fu with David Carradine replaced by a head-banging metal rocker who appears as if by magic in a time of crisis — only to freeload and take advantage of the chaos instead of fixing things. The notion that this wandering figure has a very different way of relating to the world is necessary, and some supsension of disbelief, or understanding that the story is at times more allegorical than literal, is necessary. But some implausible plot turns and events overburden that premise.
TJ Forney(Devin Brochu) is suffering and lonely. His mother is gone, his father (Rainn Wilson) is reduced to medicated stupor, and his grandmother (Piper Laurie) is too old and sick to help. On top of that, he is being bullied at school. TJ accidently costs Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) his temporary living space, and Hesher responds by moving in with the family, who seem to think TJ has brought home a friend (which isn't easy to believe given the gap in their ages and Hesher's lifestyle).
While Paul and TJ struggle to put up much of a fight in solving their own problems, Hesher lives purely in the moment, at times lashing out savagely and at times offering vulgar but candid observations. TJ develops a boyish crush on a young woman (Natalie Portman), and Hesher forces him to approach her — at the same time describing TJ's interest in obscene terms and in a way the pre-pubescent boy doesn't really understand. There are several similar scenes in which Hesher offers truly keen insights but laces them with incredible profanity. Susser seems to want to portray Hesher's oblivious words and actions as some sort of clarifying intervention for the Forney family. Even if the prescription works, it's hard to believe they could survive a second dose.
The cast does a great job of creating sympathetic characters out of these lost souls, and they smooth over many if not all of the rough spots. Gordon-Levitt is probably best known for his years on Third Rock From the Sun as an adult alien disguised as a snarky human teenager. It's hard to imagine a more starkly opposite role for him, and he's inspired as the maniacal Hesher. Portman is extremely sweet and sensitive as an awkward and almost homely young woman who befriends TJ, but at times Susser tries to treat it like a romantic relationship, which is never believable. Hesher is a thrill-ride of a film and sometimes disturbing. At the very least, it should be labeled, "Don't try this at home." Tickets $7, $6 seniors/students, $5 Zeitgeist members. — Will Coviello
7:30 p.m. Fri. & Sun.-Thu.; 9:30 p.m. Sat.
Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 827-5858; www.zeitgeistinc.net