One of the better films that was featured at the 2006 Sundance Film
Festival and later at New Directors/New Films in New York, HALF NELSON
is an expansion of the short film GOWANUS, BROOKLYN directed by Ryan
Fleck, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anna Boden.
HALF NELSON revolves around the unlikely relationship that develops
between an inner city social studies teacher named Dan Dunn (brilliantly
portrayed by Ryan Gosling) and one of his more promising students named
Drey (newcomer Shareeka Epps, recreating her role from the short film).
Now, I know what you are thinking. Haven't we already seen the
teacher-student relationship in countless films? Do we really need another?
I would argue, yes, we need this movie, since it goes into territory that a
Hollywood production wouldn't.
Dan Dunn is an idealist and a good teacher. He strives to make
history come alive for his students, partly by deviating from the prescribed
curriculum and inviting them to debate and discuss topics like civil rights.
The filmmakers slyly manage to work on some potent political commentary
without preaching. Dan also serves as the coach of the girls' basketball
team. But what sets him apart from the other teachers -- a bored lot
struggling to get through the day at work -- is that he's an addict. That's
right; he's a white, middle class guy addicted to cocaine. Indeed, part of what
leads to the bond he forms with Drey is his addiction: early in the film she
discovers him as he's taking drugs in what he thinks is an empty locker room.
Drey doesn't rat him out, nor does she use the information for her own gain.
She merely accepts it without comment or question.
Her life has been shaped by drugs and drug addiction. Her older
brother is serving time in prison for dealing and she finds a surrogate
parent in one of the local drug kingpins (Anthony Mackie). The dealer
happens to be the teacher's supplier -- something that sets up a major
conflict that the film wisely doesn't attempt to fully resolve.
Gosling is one of the best and most charismatic actors under 35
working in cinema today, yet despite some wonderful performances
(particularly in THE BELIEVER and in THE NOTEBOOK), yet he hasn't
quite broken through to the top tier. That may entirely be by his choice
as he doesn't seek the limelight in the way some other performers do,
but he remains a gifted actor and if I see his name in the cast, I will
seek out the movie. Hopefully, HALF NELSON will elevate him to the
next rank, as his work in the movie is nothing less than astonishing.
He is matched by Shareeka Epps who has the more difficult role
in some ways as she often has to be a passive observer. Epps has
a strong screen presence and holds her own. The fine supporting cast
includes Anthony Mackie, Jay O. Saunders and Deborah Rush as Gosling's
parents, and Tina Holmes as Gosling's ex-girlfriend.
My only quibble with the film is a subplot involving Dunn's
relationship with a co-worker (Monique Gabriela Curnen) that is
botched. Dunn does something that is reprehensible and there
are seemingly little if any consequences. It's minor but it does
mar the movie, particularly as HALF NELSON has its own weird
sense of morality.
Rating: B +
MPAA Rating: R for drug content throughout, language
and some sexuality
Running time: 106 mins.
Viewed at New Directors/New Films
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.