**1/2 (out of four)
Scrawny teen T.J. (Devin Brochu) and his dad Paul (Rainn Wilson) are having a hard enough time dealing with the loss of T.J.’s mom without foul-mouthed, violent pyro Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) forcing his way into T.J.’s grandma’s house. Hell-raising, long-haired, tattooed Motorhead fan Hesher isn’t what anyone would call “easy to get along with,” and he’s also got eyes for T.J.’s crush, Nicole (Natalie Portman).
The buzz: This flick from Sundance 2010 sounds very much like a quintessential indie film fest movie: A collection of wounded, incompatible characters gather briefly and are never the same. It’s easy to buy the versatile Gordon-Levitt in anything; it’s less easy to buy Portman as a homely grocery checkout girl with no confidence or prospects.
The verdict: After “Hesher,” it’s hard not to be left with a feeling of “What the ‘F’ was that?” It’s both a result of Gordon-Levitt’s strangely charismatic performance and director/co-writer Spencer Susser’s refusal to get close enough to most of his characters. Hesher’s such a mystery that he seems like a device (bong hits with Grandma, really?), and the same goes double for Nicole. The movie remains unsettling and darkly funny in spite of itself. It’s an intriguingly off-center examination of how to deal with both expected and unexpected torment. One other thing: With all this law-breaking, why don’t more people call the cops?
Did you know? Paul asks T.J. if he set a car on fire (Hesher did it while T.J. watched in horror), and T.J. answers “not really.” Kid, either be completely honest or lie, but a vague half-confession is getting you nowhere.
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