In Hesher, Natalie Portman plays a sad-sack in mom-jeans whose greatest ambition is to secure 20 hours a week at the grocery store where she toils vacant-eyed and numb for 15 hours a week. That pathetic goal remains forever outside her grasp, however, so she asks Devin Brochu, a sad little boy she has befriended, what’s wrong with her. Is she not attractive enough to score five more hours a week? Is her personality somehow lacking? Beautiful movie stars often play forgettable-looking losers, but Hesher loudly broadcasts its contempt for verisimilitude in ways that go far beyond casting one of the most beautiful women in the world as a forgettable slip of a human being. Part of this is deliberate. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the title character as a trickster slacker-god with a sweet-ass van, a dude whose actions deliberately defy understanding. That’s ostensibly what makes him interesting. What’s everyone else’s excuse?
In a performance that makes excessive demands on his rock-star charisma and offbeat sexuality, Gordon-Levitt plays a mysterious drifter who perambulates forcefully into the lives of Brochu; haunted, pill-popping dad Rainn Wilson; and grandmother Piper Laurie. Then he refuses to leave. In a sour realm ruled by inertia and apathy, Gordon-Levitt functions as a catalyst and inveterate upsetter, even though his ambitions and motivations remain cryptic.
What does he want? Where does he come from? Director Spencer Susser appears too intoxicated by the title character to risk peering beyond the enigmatic surface for fear of losing some of his mystery, as mystery is all Hesher has. The film stacks the deck by making everyone around Gordon-Levitt so sad and gray that he can’t help but pop with color and life by comparison; he’s pure sex, but it’d take more than his aggressive swagger to rouse the film from its despondent stupor. A single image defines Hesher’s busy emptiness: Brochu and Portman looking on glumly as Gordon-Levitt jumps from a flaming trampoline into a stranger’s pool. It’s all quirk, posturing, attitude, and needless exertion signifying nothing beyond its own sad need to impress.