I’m thirteen years old and Groucho Marx is coming to Evanston, Illinois to perform “An Evening With“ at Northwestern University. Nothing will keep me away. A friend’s older brother and one of his fellow upperclassmen offer to drop the two of us at Dyche Stadium to hear the legend speak. En route a joint is sparked that eventually makes its way to the back seat. I freeze. Earlier that week my gym teacher had lectured the class on the perils of smoking marijuana and an urgent sense of terror (and fascination) overtook my being as I suddenly found myself chauffeured by a couple of dope fiends.
I thought about that ride while watching “Hesher,” Spencer Susser’s hilarious new black comedy about a nine-year-old boy (played with a great range of emotion by newcomer, Devin Brochu) whose life is suddenly overtaken when a long-haired walking time bomb named Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) decides to squat in the family garage. Susser’s debut feature is as welcome a way as any to rid film lovers’ nostrils of the stench of 3D cartoons and brain dead comic book adaptations that are currently littering multiplex screens.
“Hesher,” which also stars Natalie Portman, Piper Laurie, John Carroll Lynch and Rainn Wilson, starts its exclusive run on Friday the 13th at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinema.
Scott Marks: Is this the future of cinema I’m speaking with?
Spencer Susser: (Laughs) Wow! You got it! That’s awesome.
SM: Oh, I got it alright. Here’s the big question: Hesher is not too far removed from a giant rabbit named Harvey, right? Is there a Hesher or is he just an extension of a kid’s overactive fantasy life?
SS: I think he’s all of the above. For me it was really important that, number one, he was a grounded character. For me, Hesher is very much a real person. With that said, when we were making the film I would always say to Joe (Gordon-Levitt) Hesher is 100% real all the time…but maybe he’s not. I know that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense, but for me he does represent a lot of things.
SM: Such as?
SS: One way to look at it is maybe he represents death. Here is this terrible, scary thing that shows up at this family’s door, moves into their house and there is nothing they can do about it. Once they learn how to live with him he goes away in a sense. If you watch the movie with that in mind it all plays out and works perfectly well. You could also say he represents life in a lot of ways. Hesher doesn’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow. He’s very much living in the here and now. But in a way he also represents all these terrible things running inside T.J.’s (Devin Brochu) head. You bring your own life experience to the movie and I like that.
SM: The first thing we see when the film opens is T.J. speeding through traffic on his bicycle. He broadsides a car, picks up his bike and continues peddling. The driver doesn’t get out of the car to check and see if the kid is okay! I say to myself this is either one of the biggest logic and continuity errors this side of The Three Stooges or this Susser newcomer is about to take us on a surrealistic journey inside our young protagonist’s head.
SM: When it was over I felt as though I had spent 100 minutes inside T.J.’s head. Why else would his father and grandmother allow the enemy inside their camp? It’s actually quite frightening and at the same time strangely comical.
SS: This is the story of a boy dealing with the loss of his mother told through his eyes. The whole movie is his point-of-view. Someone had commented before, while talking about some of the stunts, how much T.J. gets beat up throughout the film. They thought it was a bit much, but that’s what it feels like when you lose somebody you love. It’s like getting your ass kicked from every angle all the time.
SM: The scene where Hesher and Grandma Piper Laurie fire up a bong is the only one that does not take place exclusively from his T.J.‘s point-of-view.
SS: I added that scene to sort of break the mold. I wanted to tell the movie from T.J.’s point-of-view, but I felt like that was such an important relationship in the movie and that it needed to be included. That was a real fun scene to make. When you’re directing a kid it’s a different way of working. Every day I had to come up with a different way to get Devin to be in the right place. Piper and Joe are experts. It’s like driving a race car; you push on the gas and it goes. I’m very proud of that scene. Hesher and Grandma smoking a bong together sounds ridiculous. It’s actually not a funny scene. There are some light moments in it, but it’s really super heartfelt.
SM: The casting adds to the film’s believability. How much control did you have when it came to choosing actors?
SS: That’s a huge part of the movie. I’m as involved in casting as I am in any of it. I really fought for the actors I wanted. Even when it came to the day players who had one line, I just thought it was so critical to get it right. Every little detail adds up to what the movie is and I wanted the best actors I could get.
SM: Devin Brochu is nothing short of amazing.
SS: The thing I like most about kid actors is that they are really brave. As we grow older we tend to put our emotions further back to protect ourselves in a way. Kids' emotions are more on the surface. If you take an ice cream cone away from a little boy or girl they cry like it’s the end of the world. And in a way it is for them. Not all kids can do it, but the good ones can easily access these feelings. Devin is brave. It would be hard for someone to say that Devin’s performance in the film is acting. It isn’t. He felt it and I filmed it. It’s the same with Natalie and Joe who both started as child actors. What they do is go to these very real places. Their willingness to be vulnerable makes it real, but in a sense it’s all about “pretend.”
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