Ride the lightning

A metalhead ignites a grieving family (for better — and worse) in Hesher

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Gnarly: Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Hesher.
PHOTO BY MERRICK MORTON

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Since grunge broke, who hasn't been fascinated by those unwashed, straggly-haired, flannel-clad legions who somehow were recast as Kurt Cobain's minions? In reality they lurked on the sidelines of school functions and adolescent gatherings long before Nevermind, butt hanging from lips, back set to slouch, and coolly assessing everything against some maddeningly precise internal bullshit meter. If you thought all the entertainment was up onstage, you've got another thing comin'.

But whatever you called them — skids, stoners, dirtbags, headbangers, or heshers, according to the Urban Dictionary definition ("Reebok-wearing, mulleted person in acid-washed jeans and a Judas Priest T-shirt who, at the age of 28, still lives in his/her parents' basement") — these figures always seemed like the stuff of grimy, suburban legend because, unlike everyone at a certain tender age, they didn't give a rat's ass about what anyone thought of them.

That's why Hesher director and cowriter Spencer Susser loosely modeled his title character after late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton. "He was someone who didn't worry about what people thought of him," says Susser by phone recently. "He wore bell-bottoms in the early '80s, way after they were considered cool, and he got a lot of grief about it, but he was like, 'Screw you.' I think [the character of] Hesher is very much like that. [Burton] was never interested in being a rock star. He just wanted to make music — he was very pure in a way."

Susser and cowriter David Michod (2010's Animal Kingdom) have a feel for that independent-minded spirit — probably one reason Metallica allowed more than one of its songs to be used in Susser's first feature film. Hesher itself also likely had something to do with it — if the intrigue with heavy-metal-parking-lot culture doesn't do donuts in your cul-de-sac, then the sobering story, seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy, might.

TJ (Devin Brochu) has lost his mom, and her shockingly sudden, traumatic passing has sent his entire family into a tailspin: his father (Rainn Wilson) can barely rouse himself from his heavily medicated stupor to attend their family grief counseling meetings, while his lonely grandmother (Piper Laurie) is left to care for the wrecked menfolk as best she can. All TJ can do is try to desperately hang onto the smashed car that has been sold to the used car salesman and then the junkyard, even if it means riding his bike into traffic and incurring the wrath of a neighborhood kid (Brendan Hill) who gets between him and the crushed metal.

So it almost seems like a dream when he stumbles on and catches the attention of an aloof, threatening metalhead named Hesher (a typecast-squashing, perfectly on-point Joseph Gordon-Levitt), squatting in an empty suburban model home. Hesher threatens to kill him, then gets TJ into trouble with his pint-sized archenemy, and finally moves in, becoming his so-called "friend" and brand-new, unwanted shadow.

What's a grieving family lost in its own tragic inertia supposed to do with a home invasion staged by an angry, dangerous malevolent spirit — one giant raised middle finger etched into his back and a stick figure shooting itself in the head on his chest? The man is a walking fail tattoo — with a supernatural talent for arson, an appetite for grandma's home cooking and down-home nurturing, and an attraction to TJ's awkward friend Nicole (Natalie Portman, who also produced the film).

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