In the infancy of “Saturday Night Live,” John Belushi starred in a sketch about an obnoxious party guest, “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave.” That’s the character of Hesher in a nutshell, minus the cultural impact. As played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Inception”), he’s an aimless, homeless, near-worthless stoner metalhead who essentially enters the house of grieving grade schooler T.J. (Devin Brochu, “Rubber”) uninvited and simply won’t vacate.
Bullied at school, T.J.’s having a hard time dealing with the accidental death of his mom, and the broken condition in which it’s left his dad (Rainn Wilson, TV’s “The Office”). Running counter to audience expectations — points to director/co-writer Spencer Susser for that — Hesher’s presence just makes things worse. Until the end, at least, when “Hesher” trots out one of those supposedly moving Indie Movie Moments, shown in slow-motion, no less — this one so unrealistic, it rings as hollow as the tree where all those Keebler elves whip up those delicious cookies.
Throughout, Gordon-Levitt gives it his all, brazenly giving voice to sufficiently filthy dialogue (“You ever been skull-fucked?” are his first words to poor T.J., but it’s central to the character. No, really! Too bad that character is so bleak, as are the others, that they render the film genuinely depressing — the exact opposite of its intent.
After an opening sequence that suggests something semi-special may be afoot, “Just Peck” disappoints as a by-the-numbers indie comedy that leaves several blanks unfilled. It’s most noteworthy for casting “United States of Tara”‘s sibling duo as love interests. Like, eww!
Peck (Keira Gilchrist) is bright and talented, and therefore, unpopular. He longs to lash out and do things of which his robotic-strict parents (Adam Arkin and Marcia Cross of TV’s “Sons of Anarchy” and “Desperate Housewives,” respectively) wouldn’t approve, like joining the wrestling team instead of entering the science fair. Meeting the pretty Emily (Brie Larson) provides the spark to the flame (and sometimes literally, as she introduces him to marijuana).
Low-wattage in both comedy and drama, “Just Peck” really falters in the all-important third act, bursting a bubble of credibility (even by movie standards) and engaging in bouts of embarrassing slapstick for the adults, especially Camryn Manheim (TV’s “Ghost Whisperer”) as the school principal.
Gilchrist plays Peck the same way as he played his character in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” which is the same way he played his character in “Tara.” That’s a roundabout way of saying he’s one-note, but if that one note is all he needs to hit, he’ll hit it hard. Larson specializes in these sassy-ass, mature-beyond-her-years characters, but she demonstrates far wider range. She has, I believe a bright future in film, whereas Gilchrist sadly already may be typecast by his own doing. Neither player is particularly great in “Just Peck,” because both are better than the material they’re given. —Rod Lott