Half Nelson February 18, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , trackback
For all the pageantry and ridiculous choices that seem to run rampant, the Academy Awards still provide an important, necessary opportunity to bring attention to underseen films worthy of larger audiences. A perfect example of this is Half Nelson, a movie that has made less money at the U.S. box office than any other nominated in a major category save for the understandably low grossing Peter O’Toole film Venus, which will probably also overtake it in the next few weeks. Where the awards change things will surely be the countless people who will hear about Half Nelson due to Ryan Gosling’s richly deserved Best Actor nomination and thereafter give the new DVD release a rental. In my opinion, this is the Academy’s greatest gift to quality cinema - free publicity and, as a result, an added viewership.
Director and co-writer Ryan Fleck’s feature film debut was adapted from a short film he made with editor and co-writer Anna Boden entitled Gowanus, Brooklyn. Both the short and Half Nelson concern inner-city teacher and girls basketball coach Dan Dunne, who successfully struggles to make a difference in the lives of his students but has a much more difficult time balancing his own drug addiction. I can understand anyone’s skepticism in thinking they’ve seen this type of movie before - young, urban white male battles dependence on drugs and, after hitting rock bottom, must somehow kick the habit before it destroys him. The great thing is that Half Nelson feels like none of those seemingly similar films. It’s surprisingly refreshing and unpredictable, with Gosling giving arguably the superior male performance of the year as Dunne.
Instead of building up to a meltdown or paint-by-numbers scenario to initiate sobriety, we’re given a more realistic journey into the difficulty of living with addiction while also trying to maintain a normal existence. We spend time with the character and he’s humanized, both by the impressive script and Gosling’s mesmerizing portrayal, as a flawed young man unable to eliminate his drug problem. He’s self-destructive, but unapologetic. His ruinous existence, highlighted by a mattress without a bed in an altogether decaying apartment, is as much by choice as it is addiction. Any hint of a desire to straighten up his life is masked by the overwhelming urge to use, regardless of how inappropriate the timing might be.
The most careless example we see is when, following a basketball game, Dunne decides to smoke crack in the girls restroom and is caught by one of his students, Drey. Unfazed, the young girl helps her teacher and coach as he comes down and then gets a ride home from him. Bound together by this secret, the two grow attached and we see the parallel story of Drey, whose brother is serving jail time for dealing. Dunne is concerned for Drey when she starts spending time with neighbor and drug dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie, star of Spike Lee’s She Hate Me), who owes a debt to her brother for not giving him up to the police.
As the thirteen-year-old Drey, Shareeka Epps (who also played the character in the original short film) is Gosling’s equal, turning in the finest performance of the year from a child actor and making you scratch your head at how such a slight film like Little Miss Sunshine could have its young star nominated while Epps was snubbed. The teenage actress wrings a wounded knowingness out of her character, displaying a maturity beyond her years. It feels like natural acting, and for all I know Epps could be just like Drey in real life, but it absolutely works perfectly in this film. Like Gosling but to a greater extent, Epps has a virtual blank palette to work with in audiences’ minds since we’re not familiar with her on screen.
Gosling also uses this to his advantage in creating his performance, one of the finest from a young male actor in a decade or more. He was well-received but mostly unseen in the role of a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer back in 2001 and won the hearts of teenage girls in The Notebook, but he’s still basically unknown to the majority of moviegoers. While reminding me that there’s been a dearth of serious young male actors lately, Gosling’s break-out here brings to mind Edward Norton’s one-two punch of Oscar-nominated roles in Primal Fear and American History X a few years back. Like Norton, Gosling mostly came out of nowhere (not counting his stint on the new Mickey Mouse Club) to burst into cinemas or, more likely, living rooms with a performance that demands audiences take notice.
Unlike most, if not all, the other nominated performances in the lead actor category, Gosling is actually in an outstanding film as well. There’s a lot going on here, exploring the dynamic between a teacher who seems to come from a completely different background than his Brooklyn minority students while also dealing with Dunne’s personal conflict involving his debilitating crack habit and a protective interest in Drey. In addition, the film skillfully touches on the concept of dialectics, a push-pull philosophy into the contradictory nature of life and somewhat of an overarching theme for the entire film, as well as educational lessons in injustice via occasional monologues from the students that are intercut into the film. Almost improbably, things never get messy or too complicated and the viewer is left with a good amount to chew on afterwards.
Now having praised the film and performances, I want to make sure not to oversell it. While it’s certainly one of the best American films of last year, it would have suffered from the kind of extreme hype that tends to cripple first time viewings of so many other films. It’s a small, independent film that can be emotionally gripping and intensely engrossing, but it’s best to discover it on your own without the endless publicity from media reporting what the filmmakers ate for dinner each night, etc., and thus demystifying its impact. The Academy have done their part by giving Half Nelson a small boost in attention and now it’s for the discerning viewers out there to do the same.
(The film is scheduled for theatrical release in the UK on
March 2nd April 20th, with a DVD tentatively due in September)