Thirteen-year-old T.J. Forney (Brochu) could use a friend. He’s bullied at school, neglected by his pill-popping father (Wilson) and dealing, none too well, with the untimely death of his mother. Enter the mysterious Hesher (Gordon-Levitt), a heavy-metal slacker with a fondness for flames, felonious behavior and fingering vajayjay. He latches onto T.J. like Hobbes the tiger onto Calvin, though he’s less an imaginary friend than a dark-side Dr. Phil with a frustratingly opaque fuck-it-all attitude. (In one scene, he stands idly by while our young protagonist is forced to eat a urinal cake—a sure way to stoke the assertive fires within.)
That T.J. and his family willingly allow this headbanging psycho(analyst) to move into their cluttered, dankly lit abode—the emotional damage is palpable, yo!—is just one of the film’s many eyebrow-raising contrivances. You can practically hear director Spencer Susser and his coscreenwriter, David Michôd, barking to the audience, “Just go with it!” And for a time we do, since, Sundancey redemption-trajectory aside, the film is often unsentimentally tough and committed. Gordon-Levitt assuredly hits his single stoner-shrink note, and saucer-eyed Brochu effortlessly holds the tale on his shoulders, even when things inevitably turn to syrup. (Junkyard-as-repository-of-psychic-trauma sequence, fie on thee!) Plenty else fails: The decision to set the story in a vaguely ’80s strip-mall neverland seems mainly a way of justifying the unfortunate pair of specs executive producer Natalie Portman sports as a dim-bulb checkout girl, and a climactic monologue about the loss of a testicle is too impressed with its own profane Road-to-Damascus-moment cleverness. But there’s also giddy and affecting inspiration in scenes like the woozily extended encounter among Hesher, Grandma Forney (an unrecognizable Piper Laurie) and a medicinal herb-stuffed water bong. Personal anguish be damned—hash always hashes everything out.