Who's In It: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie, Devin Brochu, John Carroll Lynch
The Basics: TJ (Brochu) just lost his mother in a car accident and is left to fend for himself--emotionally at least--while his father (Wilson) sleeps all day, paralyzed with grief. Enter Hesher (Levitt), a transient Metallica/Motorhead-listening longhair and amateur sociopath. He barges into their lives unannounced and uninvited, takes over their home and becomes something of a metal Mary Poppins to the shattered family. He teaches TJ the art of revenge, defends him against bullies and helps him woo a local supermarket checker (Portman). He even teaches Grandma (Laurie) how to use a bong and pushes the entire family toward a "cathartic moment." In other words, ultimately, he's not very metal.
What's The Deal: Easily wrapped up, emotionally tidy indie films are a dietary staple in most art-house theaters across the United States. Audiences seem to like and expect them. This one doesn't disturb that expectation, either, because while it arrives decorated with cooler hair and a louder soundtrack, it still sticks to the "Unusual Outsider Teaches Middle-Class People What It Means to Really Live" template. In a way it's like the homemade Christmas card my friend Garrison sent me last year. It had a picture of Gaahl, the scary-looking guy from black metal band Gorgoroth, on it. And while the surprise of a brutal grim Norwegian on the outside was awesome, the inside contained wishes for a warm and loving holiday. In the end it was still a Christmas card.
Casting Surprise # 1: Inception notwithstanding, it can still be a leap for most audiences to think of Joseph Gordon Levitt as anyone but that kid from Third Rock from the Sun. But if you've seen enough of his performances in the long list of independent films he's starred in over the years, stuff like (500) Days of Summer, Brick and Mysterious Skin, then you know that he's more than moved on from his childhood TV fame. And he's pretty much the sole reason to see this movie. Until the final act he's as real an anti-authority, no-rules badass as anyone you're ever likely to meet in real life and his performance carries you along until the script decides to arbitrarily change him and turn him soft like a helpful seeing-eye dog.
Casting Surprise # 2: Piper Laurie (she was the deranged mom in Carrie) takes the role of the gently wacky, out-of-it grandmother and turns it on its head, giving the movie its one earned, emotionally raw moment as she bursts into helpless tears over her inability to comfort her son and grandson. I wanted to see more of her.
Casting Surprise # 3: The ubiquitous Natalie Portman as the disheveled grocery store clerk. It's a move-the-plot along role and she's miscast. It's not enough to go makeup-less. It's not enough to wear ugly clothes. It's not enough to have messy hair. You're still Natalie Portman. You will never be frumpy.