HESHER, last year’s comedy-drama starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, and Rainn Wilson, draws some parallels between it REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and PETER PAN. Bear with me here. Compared to REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, both films deal with young, troubled and/or disaffected youth who, due to their rejection by mainstream society, find refuge in one another’s company. Viewed in a different way, HESHER also compares to PETER PAN in that both films feature a child-like, mischievous character who eschews the normal adult world with all of its responsibilities in favor of one where he has no responsibilities to anyone. Basically, HESHER is a coming-of-age story, but certainly not in the nostalgic, warm sense that such movies as MY GIRL and STAND BY ME present. This film is more rough around its edges and although it may be full of first-timer director mistakes, HESHER has ended up being one of my favorite films of 2011.

HESHER is the directorial debut of Spencer Susser, who also co-wrote the screenplay with David Michod (the director of the highly-acclaimed ANIMAL KINGDOM). Like so many directors, Susser began his career making music videos, commercials, and a short film that Susser plans to develop into a longer, feature-length film called I LOVE SARAH JANE (Sidenote: Susser also directed a series of “making-of” documentaries for STAR WARS EPISODE II, where he met and befriended Natalie Portman). HESHER was an idea that Susser developed over the years that evolved from a broad comedy (that was originally conceived by someone else) to the more dramatic comedy that it eventually turned into.

Before I sum up the story, a “hesher,” in case you’re wondering, is defined by “Urban Dictionary” as “Long haired, usually mulleted person who listens and rocks out to Metal or Thrash music. Generally seen wearing acid-washed jeans, leather motorcycle or denim jacket covered with band and skull patches.” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “hesher” more or less conforms to this definition. Set in the 1980’s, HESHER is about a grieving middle school boy named T.J. (Devin Brochu) and his depressed father (Rainn Wilson), who are both struggling to deal with the death of their mother/wife after a fatal car accident. Barging into this dysfunctional family’s grief is Hesher (Gordon-Levitt), who somehow ends up living with the family and strikes up a close friendship with the boy’s grandmother (an unrecognizable Piper Laurie). Thrown into the story is a grocery check-out girl played by Natalie Portman, who plays a sort of love interest for the boy.

How you will respond to HESHER will sort of depend on how conventional or safe you like your characters and setups to be. I didn’t know what to expect going into this movie and its better that you don’t know because the less you know the more shockingly surprised you will be by the characters’ actions. This film walks a fine line between drama and comedy and it handles both very well. Ultimately, however, HESHER is about loss. The boy, T.J., is a confused and angry kid who lost his mom suddenly and way too soon. He doesn’t know how to cope with his mother’s loss and he has very little in terms of support. His father is on medication to deal with his depression and that leaves only his grandmother, who feels helpless in terms of how much support she can give at her old age. It’s a sad and desperate situation that, strangely enough, when Hesher enters the scene, his violent and dark demeanor is actually a relief.

I think many, including me, may find T.J. and his family’s seeming acceptance of a strange guy like Hesher moving into their house very strange. It took me a while to accept this weird turn of events, but once (or if) you do, the film builds a nice momentum that captivates you for its entirety. A lot of credit goes to Joseph Gordon-Levitt for creating such an interesting character who is at once funny, repulsive, and caring. Its pretty amazing to think the young kid from THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN has grown up to possess such a wide range of acting talent. Its hard to believe the guy in this movie is the same fresh-faced kid in (500) DAYS OF SUMMER and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Moreover, Gordon-Levitt clearly isn’t afraid to tackle challenging roles as evidenced by HESHER and last year’s 50/50. The Hesher character could have easily been played to exhibit the most surfaced stereotypes that would have made the character come off as being simply comedic. However, Gordon-Levitt was able to find the core of that character and create sympathy for a character who normally wouldn’t elicit sympathy from anyone. By the way, Hesher has one of the best (not to mention, hilarious) character introductions I have seen in a long time. The kid, T.J., ends up in a construction site and there is a house behind him that is still under construction. Angry that he has just been tossed off his bicycle, T.J. throws a rock through window, thinking there isn’t anyone inside the house. Suddenly, we see Hesher emerge from the house, walk towards T.J. and drags him inside the house to beat the shit out of him. However, before he gets a chance to do so, a security car drives by, spotting Hesher and T.J. In response, Hesher takes a firecrack bomb and throws it at the car to create a diversion so he can get away. That is our introduction to Hesher.

The rest of the cast does a pretty good job, but there isn’t anything particularly noteworthy from their performances. Devin Brochu doesn’t have much to say and he spends much of the film just screaming at Hesher, bullies, and generally, the world. Little is also required from Rainn Wilson, who is on various medications throughout the film and always appears depressed. There is one memorable scene between Brochu and Wilson at the dinner table where T.J. finally decides to confront his father about his dependency on drugs and how screwed up their family has become. It’s an explosive scene that momentarily turns the spotlight away from Hesher. As for Natalie Portman, she does a fine job playing the part of the underpaid, barely-making-it grocery girl. Her character is perfectly defined by the janky car she drives, her ratty look, the shitty L.A. apartment she lives in, and the dead end job she works at. And yet, she fights on and keeps her head above life’s waters. Finally, Piper Laurie is a nice treat in the movie. Again, I had no idea who she was until I saw her name in the credits. Laurie is wonderful as the caring grandmother who keeps her family together by a very thin thread. The warm moments between she and Hesher as they develop their friendship are among the best parts of the film.

Many will say that HESHER is not for everyone and I disagree. I actually saw this film with my father, who likes his independent films from time to time, but he generally prefers historical and action films. I was initially reluctant to show him this movie and I was very surprised that he not only sat through the entire film, but he actually enjoyed it as much as I did. At its center, HESHER deals with themes that everyone can relate to. The film is not simply about a destructive psychopath who engages in random acts of mischief and violence for 2 hours. Hesher undergoes a transformation that, by the end of the film, has turned him into someone who, although still a hesher, ultimately cares about people and wants to help those in need. Who can’t relate to that?

I think many who watch this film will be turned off by Hesher’s extremism and I can appreciate that. It’s one of the film’s flaws. Nothing appears to faze Hesher and nothing is off limits. The character has zero inhibitions and he operates off instinct. That may come off to some as being selfish, callous, and crude. At the same time, no one can say that Hesher is a boring character. He’s totally unpredictable and a pure joy to watch. I can safely say that the character absolutely, hands-down steals every scene.

A bigger issue I had with this film is the script’s episodic and, at times, aimless nature. Add to this the creation of quirky characters that are quirky for the sake of being quirky and less for developing the narrative in any way. In fact, if it wasn’t for Gordon-Levitt’s performance and the development of the Hesher character, this film would be a depressing and forgettable indie film. The supporting cast isn’t bad, but its as if they’re all there (as are all the situations) to serve Hesher. It reminds me of a comedy film that stars an SNL comedian like Adam Sandler. Those movies are pure vanity pieces that are completely centered around the comedian and his antics. Story is secondary and often it isn’t even that. The same goes for HESHER. I had a great time watching the film, but in the end, it was a showcase for Hesher and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and if you happen to enjoy that character and the performance, then you’ll love the film.