Half Nelson (2006)
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Dan is a well-liked teacher and basketball coach whose parents (Deborah Rush and Jay O. Sanders) were liberal activists during the 60s and 70s, participating in protests against the Vietnam War but have now substituted alcoholism for political passion. Like his parents, he wants to make an impact on the world but is disillusioned with the current political climate and, out of frustration and fatigue, (like many on the Left today) has drifted into a self-induced stupor. Believing in social justice and that society can be changed through education, he teaches history, to the chagrin of the school's administrator, in the form of Hegelian dialectic, showing that change results from a clash of opposites.
Dan shows his students videos of seminal events from the last fifty years such as the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that paved the way for desegregation of the schools, clips from the civil rights movement, and Mario Savio speaking on the Berkeley campus during the Free Speech Movement. To its credit, the events in the film do not occur in a political vacuum but attempts to tie in the failed protests of the Left to Dan's drug habit are not entirely persuasive. Dunne's life begins to spiral out of control when one of his students, thirteen-year old Drey (Shareeka Epps), discovers him in the girl's bathroom passed out from ingesting cocaine. Instead of becoming frightened or angry, Drey brings him water and helps him to gradually come down from his high.
Drey comes from a family in which her mother works a double shift and is rarely at home, her father is out of town, and her older brother is in prison for selling drugs, but she is mature and street-wise beyond her age. She promises to keep his secret and both find that their unlikely friendship satisfies an emotional need that Drey cannot find with her classmates and Dan cannot find with other adults. He is dating a fellow teacher (Monique Curnen) but his behavior with her is erratic and his political speeches and drug habits soon turn her off. A former girl friend from his period of rehabilitation (which he said didn't work for him) tells him that she is now getting married which pushes him further into a downward trajectory.
The emotional highlight of the film is a confrontation between Dunne and Frank (Anthony Mackie), a suave drug dealer and associate of Drey's older brother who recruits Drey to be his collector. While Dan wants to steer Drey in the right direction, he is hardly a role model and the results, while promising, are inconclusive. Although the premise of the film is somewhat implausible, Gosling's performance of the charming but flawed teacher is completely credible, so nuanced and touching that we root for him in spite of his capacity for self-destruction. Shareeka Epps is equally convincing in her powerfully understated performance as his tough but sensitive young friend. Co-written by Anna Boden and supported by an outstanding original score by Broken Social Scene, Half Nelson "stands and delivers" one of the finest films of the year.
Just watching Gosling in every frame is a triumph in what character development is all about, along with the brilliance of his performance. Gosling adds HALF NELSON to his outstanding work in the films THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND and the gorgeous NOTEBOOK.
Shareeka Epps as a young, struggling student, is a perfect foil to Gosling, and her intelligence and strength matches that of Gosling as they both deliver scenes that are memorable and tremendous. From the classroom to the basketball court, to the painful addiction scenes, Epps and Gosling make HALF NELSON come alive with anger, pain and the true pathos of life represented in America today.
With the final scene in the film, one can only hope that the characters may move from despair into lives which might give them a sense of hope, and finally a chance, as with the lessons of history, to move beyond their unhappy past into a brighter and more rewarding future.
I can't say enough good things about this film and highly recommend it because it is well conceived, directed and performed.
I hope it receives support and recognition during the film award season so that a wider audience will find and see this independent film.
Gosling's Mr. Dunne the history 'teach' doubling also as basketball coach, meeting (a solid matching delivery from) Shareeka Epps' Drey, the 13-year old student who 'found' him and 'witnessed' his secret - theirs is a relationship, naturally portrayed, of two 'opposing' forces as dialectics as can be. I felt Drey is the primary force that 'helped' Dunne's secondary force to yield and together, they created a contradiction anew as life goes on.
I remember from a 1969 book, a quote that might describe the heart of "Half Nelson": "Contradictions are the source of all movement and of all life. All things are in themselves contradictory and it is this principle, more than any other, which expresses the essence of things."
In a way, contradictory yet similar: Dunne and Drey both are 'on their own' trying to hang on, to manage the conflicts in their life's journey. Do we need all the answers in life? Do we have to know why someone behave as he/she does or something happen as it did? Director Ryan Fleck and co-writer/editor/producer Anna Boden tried not to 'over-explain anything'. Sometimes the answer can simply be: "I don't know."
"Half Nelson" is an ambitious film. Besides 'comments' on educational system, single parent family strife, Dan's addiction predicament, the script also managed to include political viewpoints unobtrusively expressed through talking heads of single student reciting historical civil rights movement events. The 'R' rating does indicate some intimate scenes, clever inter-cuts juxtaposing what the two forces were each doing at the moment. Music (by "Broken-Social-Scene") is timely applied at certain segments but sparingly. Well-rounded supporting cast, especially Anthony Mackie as Frank the 'friendly' dealer who may want to do right by Drey but only in the way he knows how within the realms of selling drugs (reminds me of w-d Boaz Yakin's "Fresh" 1994, brilliant debut performance by Sean Nelson as the 12-year old interacting with a dealer 'mentor').
Kudos to all involved on "Half Nelson". The film was shot in Brooklyn, New York. Thanks to ThinkFilm for being the distributor (documentary: Spellbound; Murderball; March of the Penguins; drama: The Last Kiss - Italy; Kontroll - Hungary; Gus Van Sant's Gerry).
Gosling was impressive as an addict that was trying to hold on and teach. You could see the constant struggle as he fought giving up. The back and forth with Epps was quietly enchanting. Both certainly showed great acting talent in this film.
No loud action and prurient subject matter, just a sweet film showing a man's struggle and a girl's growing up realizing that drugs cripple. This film is hard to reduce to simple formulas. It transcends any mold and entertains in a reflective manner.
"Intense, deep, human, scary, dark, sad, happy, hopeful, depressing, awesome. . ." "Great story. Great film. I enjoyed it a lot. A lot to learn from this film." "Wonderful character development (and great actors!) Very real movie." "Makes you think. Loved it." "Great acting to go along with the wonderful writing. I only hope they both make it through (Drey and Dan)." "Beautifully shot, beautifully acted, and just like life in which ideals can float on top of emotional turmoil and children teach teachers." "Outstanding. Very creative and absorbing." "Enjoyed the film, especially the close shots, which added to my initial discomfort and eventual resonance with the themes of closeness and discomfort." "Great movie. Lots of complex characters. Loved the historical political references." "Half Nelson isn't half bad! In fact, it's rather perfect."