Sporting an unkempt shoulder-length mane and the lanky torso of a byzantine Christ enhanced by violent stick-figured tattoos, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the showiest asset of Hesher, embodying the titular headbanging interloper with the agitated gait and bratty scowl of a pissed-off roadie, breaking into a goofy grin only when he sets a car ablaze or his 13-year-old frenemy, TJ Forney (Devin Brochu), rears back and kicks him in the balls. Unfortunately, director and co-writer Spencer Susser fails to deliver on early hints of a wasteoid fable—Pasolini’s Teorema with the volume turned to 11—or treat his presumed theme of atavistic male rage with any originality. (His peak image comes early, with Hesher shimmying up a utility pole in his BVDs, a man-ape hunting TV porn channels.)
Alongside the stunted lives of the other members of the Forney household some weeks after the death of TJ’s mom in a car accident, with near-catatonic Dad (Rainn Wilson) popping antidepressants and dotty Grandma (Piper Laurie) going through homemaking motions, the boy’s abuse at the hands of an unrelenting bully and his first encounters with the peripatetic, van-driving Hesher are just the freshest wounds in a daily gauntlet; Susser has the kid splatter onto Los Angeles asphalt three times in his opening bike travels. Prodded into stalking his checkout-girl crush (Natalie Portman, fidgeting behind big glasses) by the shameless Hesher (“You can’t fuck her from over here, dude,” the punk urges as they loiter in a distant store aisle), TJ is paralyzed not only by pubescent lust, but fear and hatred of his school tormentor, and by the grief that prompts regular visits to the used-car lot where Mom’s death car sits, and pleas to the exasperated dealer to sell it to him.
Susser irrevocably drops the ball when Hesher begins to develop an interior life we’re supposed to take seriously, inevitably featuring a heart-to-heart with Laurie’s guileless old lady over bong hits and a mortifyingly sentimental climax which finds Gordon-Levitt delivering an idiot-savant eulogy about his missing left nut and making do in the face of loss. A central episode where Hesher spirits the kid and the convenience clerk into a backyard trespass, dumping barbecue hardware and chairs into the victim’s pool while barking lines from the Star Wars trash compactor scene, typifies the movie’s waste of energy; like moronic van-driving heshers across the globe, it mistakes anomie for liberty and volume for independence, until it regresses into bathetic tripe that begs for a tossed M-80.