Movie review: Joseph Gordon-Leavitt gives fine performance in 'Hesher'

Al Alexander

If you infused Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee with tattoos and copious amounts of hallucinogens, you’d have something approaching Hesher, the most uncouth child grief counselor the movies have ever seen.

Some might say he’s heavy metal, others heavily mental, but all will agree that in the hands of Joseph Gordon-Levitt he’s a mesmerizing presence in the aptly titled “Hesher.”

Who knew that the sweet little milquetoast from “(500) Days of Summer” and “Inception” could transform himself into such a badass? There are times in this wonderfully demented flick when Gordon-Levitt is downright scary. But then there are other moments when you just flat-out want to hug him or buy him a beer.

The fun is in never knowing what mood Hesher will be in next, as he methodically goes about resetting the course of a grief-stricken family that’s lost its rudder. Like an earthquake or volcano, he could erupt at any minute. And when he does, watch out. It can get intense, like when he torches a bully’s car or breaks into a stranger’s house and trashes the swimming pool before setting the diving board afire.

Devil or angel? That’s the question you keep asking yourself about the man who looks like Jesus, but behaves like Satan. And after seeing the movie, I’m still not entirely sure of which side of the morality scale he falls on. What I do know is that this is one of Gordon-Levitt’s finest performances as he, in a liberating way, casts restraint to the wind and lets the good and evil all hang out.

He’s not alone, either. Along for the ride are the likes of Natalie Portman (infinitely better here than in the god-awful “Thor”), Rainn Wilson and Piper Laurie, great actors all. But the thespian who steals your heart is Devin Brochu (“In the Valley of Elah”) as T.J., the sad-eyed 13-year-old, whom Hesher comes to save.

Well, “save” might be too strong of a word, considering how Hesher consistently places the lad in physical danger by insinuating himself upon T.J., his father (Wilson) and grandmother (Laurie) after taking up residence in their garage. Most people would toss the freeloader out on his ear, but the Forney clan is in such a grief-imbued fugue that they have neither the will nor the inclination to ask him to leave.

So, he stays, quietly observing and taking mental notes about what ails each member of the family before taking drastic measures to remedy the dire situation. It’s sad in a way. Death always is. But director and co-writer Spencer Susser injects it with so much blatantly dark humor that you cannot help but laugh at Hesher’s increasingly outrageous antics.

You also melt every time you’re in the company of a glammed-down Portman (looking more like Sarah Palin than the Black Swan) as a timid, four-eyed grocery clerk who could use a little of Hesher’s healing powers herself. Portman, who also serves as a producer, is superb in the role, especially in her deeply compassionate scenes opposite T.J., whom her Nicole befriends after rescuing him from a bully.

The bravest performance by far, though, belongs to Laurie, who not only delivers Oscar-caliber work as a granny battling dementia but also shows herself to be a good sport in not batting an eye whenever Hesher goes on one of his many four-letter tirades in the Forneys’ home. She’s priceless, as is the wise-beyond-his-years Brochu.

But the person who impresses most is Susser, a first-time filmmaker who cut his teeth on the set of “Star Wars II” before evolving into a quadruple threat as a writer, director, editor and producer. And because he wears all four hats on “Hesher,” the film is both original and uncompromising, an in-your-face treatise on healing and loss.

In that regard, “Hesher” ain’t for sissies. It demands that you man-up as a filmgoer and either accept the movie as the morally corrupt delight that it is, or eat crap. If you’re smart, you’ll do the former because if there’s one thing I learned about Hesher, it’s that you don’t want to tick him off. Believe me, if you do, he’ll make you regret it.

HESHER (R for disturbing violent content including graphic dialogue, pervasive language and drug content –– some in the presence of a child.) Cast includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie and Devin Brochu. Co-written and directed by Spencer Susser. At Kendall Square, Cambridge. 3.5 stars out of 4.