Spencer Susser's initially rousing Hesher introduces an engimatic stranger into a fractured family with equivocally redemptive results. The titular tattooed pyromaniac (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) crashes the grotty L.A. home of Paul Forney (Rainn Wilson) after a tussle with the latter's bullied teenage son, T.J. (Devin Brochu), and stirs up the grief and resentment simmering there from a recent family tragedy. T.J.'s live-in grandmother (Piper Laurie) and a do-gooder grocery clerk (Natalie Portman) try to shake father and son from their mutual funk, but only the expulsive, potty-mouthed metalhead makes a dent. Susser's take on this venerable subgenre—think Teorema without the politics or a lactation-free Visitor Q, both of which Susser seems to be referencing here—excels at dodging the question of whether Hesher is flesh and blood or a pubescent misfit's cheaply menacing id-phantom, but lets the raw surprise of Hesher's first third bog down in knotty plotting to the point of self-parody (the slo-mo climax is especially awkward). Still, Hesher finds uncommon sympathy for people at loose ends, and although Hesher himself is sentimentalized and backhandedly inspiring, he never softens into an actual role model. For better or worse, he remains what he is—and if there's a lesson here (and rest assured there is), it's that life typically offers few other options.
Gordon-Levitt is a symbol of something.
Opens at Lincoln Square, Meridian, and Metro, Fri., May 13. Rated R. 105 minutes.