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Awaking To Ryan Gosling
M. J Arocena2 January 2008
Ryan Gosling made happen what happens only once every so often. Made me look at what I seen before under a new magnifying light. He took me with him and showed me, with the most astonishing clarity, the complexity of a talented man dragged down by a legacy of good intentions and addiction. We're permitted to visit his family once and we understand what he's fighting with without any weapons. He doesn't blame anyone but he's the result of his own DNA and he knows it. His bright moments, the explanation of what History is for instance, is a glimpse into the man he could actually be, fully. The humanity that Ryan Gosling lends to his character on his darker moments it's as chillingly real as it is moving. The chemistry he establishes with the wonderful Shareeka Epps is as powerful as the one he established with me. I want to meet him, I want to meet Dan and while I was thinking that I realize I know him already. He lives next door to me, he's related to me, I was his friend. This is what superb performances do. They re-awake you.
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Gritty and sensitive
Howard Schumann4 September 2006
Set in Brooklyn, New York where he currently lives, Ryan Fleck's first full-length feature, Half Nelson, is a gritty, sensitive, and emotionally harrowing film that meticulously avoids the inspirational clichés of many teacher-student films and the obligatory violence of films set in the ghetto. The title is derived from a wrestling move in which you turn an attacker's strength back on him. In the case of Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), an idealistic eight-grade history teacher in an inner city school, he turns the attack on himself, inspiring his students by day and drugging himself at night with crack cocaine.

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.
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delaney9078 July 2006
Anyone who has experienced addiction in their lives, whether your own or someone close to you, will find this film cutting. It is not about the reasons leading to addiction or the recovery, rather it is about the experience of the addiction in its raw reality. Even if you have not experienced addiction in your life, the story is worthwhile and the photography stellar. Ryan Gosling is the perfect portrait of a good person who got lost. His portrayal of a crack head is almost too good. The dialog is not pretentious or assuming and not overused. The story unfolds itself in a very natural manner.

Highly recommended.
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eggowaffl-115 August 2006
If the strength of the medium of film is to relay meaning which cannot be expressed in words, then I don't think a review of this film on my part would be worth much. In the spirit of keeping things trite, let me just say I have seen quite a few films, quite a few classics, quite a few masterpieces, and frankly, none of them have moved me as much as this film did. How the BRILLIANT director/writers whom I'm sure we have not seen the last of, managed to weave together seamlessly political commentary, commentary on the nature of the modern family/relationships, existential struggles, racial tensions and ironies, and the very struggles with which we are born by simply being human, is beyond me. The end result was nothing short of a masterpiece. This movie will make you think, feel, and hope. Perfection projected.
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HALF NELSON...A Ryan Gosling Film Triumph
screenwriter-1426 August 2006
Ryan Gosling delivers a performance in HALF NELSON that is a marvel to watch and to see the talent which this young man/actor brings to the film and screen. Every frame delivers the intensity and drama within this young teacher's life and the issues he handles with his addiction and how he strives to reach his students in the classroom through honesty, humor and the lessons of history delivered on screen.

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.
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Not One False Note in this Film
videobrooklyn19 August 2006
"Half Nelson" is a spare, original story with exquisitely natural and fresh performances delivered by Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps and Anthony Mackie. The film covers ground somewhat like what we've seen in "To Sir, With Love," "Dangerous Minds," "The Blackboard Jungle" and other inner-city school dramas. Only this film focuses on the lives of one teacher and student in an intimate and up-close way. "Half Nelson" looks at specific lives and does not generalize. There is little exposition, and so much of what we learn about the characters is deduced from how they said something, rather than what they said. At times, I found myself laughing and smiling through what is a rather disturbing story because of the way the characters react to the circumstances they find themselves in.

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.
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The 'dialectics' indie filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden created in "Half Nelson" is realized by Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps' unarguably nuanced performances
Ruby Liang (ruby_fff)3 September 2006
Ryan Gosling is truly amazing in his film role deliveries. His breakthrough role in "The Believer" 2001 was explosively intense. He consistently gives integral reflective portrayals, even for a departure romantic role in director Nick Cassavetes' "The Notebook" 2004, he was absolutely convincing as Noah who loves Rachel McAdam's Allie to the core. Here in "Half Nelson," he appears to disappear into Dan Dunne, a high school teacher with an ideal and a crack addiction problem. That sure sounds contradictory in terms: a teacher being a role model, while drug addiction a totally unacceptable behavior. As Dunne wrote on the blackboard in the beginning: 'Dialectics,' the film "Half Nelson" is in itself dialectics demonstrated.

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).
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The only constant is change.
lastliberal26 December 2007
Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps were just plain awesome in this film by Ryan Fleck.

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.
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This film will you change you
Sherrylmartinez18 August 2006
The litmus of test of good art is in how it affects you. I saw this film yesterday and still can not stop dissecting and discovering new aspects of the story. There is a truth in this film that can't be put into words. This is the sort of film that needs to be seen by everybody. The frailty of being human is never so more eloquently laid on film than in this movie(and I'm not just talking Ryan Gosling here). The writing/directing team need to be looked at for academy award nomination. This is some of the best American film has to offer. Casting for this film I can imagine must have been difficult, the choices made were nothing short of perfection. Shareeka Epps, Ryan Gosling and Anthony Mackie all deserve Academy award nominations. Look at this movie Hollywood this is what film is supposed to be. This movie will stay with me forever.
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Half Nelson--a moving and thought-provoking film
ligaya22 May 2006
I saw Half Nelson twice at the San Francisco International Film Festival and liked it even better the second time. Each actor is memorable and convincing. Ryan Gosling is amazing as Dan, a charismatic but drug addicted teacher—an academy award level performance. Gosling was voted best actor at Sundance, 2006, in an IndieWire poll, which also picked Half Nelson as best film. Shareeka Epps is equally riveting as Drey, the student who learns his secret, voted best actress in the Sundance IndieWire poll. Epps also led the list of six of this year's breakthrough performances by the New York Times. Anthony Mackie is anything but predictable as a local drug dealer. Half Nelson packs an emotional wallop, but also has solid political and philosophical substance. Here are comments from ten viewers at the SF Festival where it won the International Critics Prize (FIPRESCI). This prize is established at international film festivals, and its aim is to promote film art and to particularly encourage new and young cinema.

"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."
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The inner city teacher
jotix10014 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
The job of a teacher in an inner city school deserves to be recognized as it is not an easy job by any means. Dan Dunne, who is a history teacher, and a coach of the girls' basketball team, in addition of the difficulties of his daily life, has an added problem in that he is an addict of cocaine and other substances.

As if that weren't enough, his life is a mess as well. It shows in the way he lives, his messy apartment, the way he keeps himself. That doesn't mean he is not an intelligent person, but drugs have taken a lot from him. Dan is a man with leftist values. We see it in the way he teaches his class about recent events that relate to his almost all black students.

Drey, a sensitive student, appears to be a loner. She has seen what the drugs did to his brother, now in jail for dealing. He has been put away for a while, but ratting on Frank, the big man that used him to distribute the dope. Her single working mother, Karen, is having a tough time making ends meet with a job that doesn't pay well.

Drey sees in her teacher Don a flawed role model. While Don is kind to the girl, she realizes he has a huge problem as an addict. Their relationship comes to a standstill when the girl, who has decided to work for Frank, comes bringing cocaine to a house where she sees Don in a horrible state. Their relationship will no doubt suffer on account of this experience. Surprisingly, the film ends in a hopeful note as Drey comes to visit Don to share a quiet moment with him.

Ryan Fleck directed with a keen understanding of the situation at hand. Mr. Fleck also contributed to the screenplay with Anna Boden. The film is painful to watch, at times. Yet, it doesn't depress us the way we thought it would. Ryan Gosling gives a sensitive portrait of the man who has stooped low and doesn't know how to climb back up. Shareeka Epps also made an impression as Drey. Anthony Mackey, a fine actor makes an excellent Frank. The same can be said about Karen Chilton who plays Drey's mother. Deborah Rush has a chance to shine as Don's mother.

"Half Nelson" shows a realistic portrait of the world it depicts.
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Half Nelson is stunning
sandy-neeson23 September 2006
I had to drive to the other side of town to see this movie, and it was well worth the drive. Over twelve hours after seeing the movie, I am still feeling the emotion of it. Ryan Gosling. as teacher Dan Dunne, is real, authentic and warm. Sharecka Epps, as student Drey, is stunningly mature in the way she can totally convey emotion by the expressions on her face. I found that much of the movie's drama was played out in their eyes. Watching Dan and Drey learn to be in a relationship together was powerful, emotional and sweet. This is a movie about life at its rawest, and how two people, both human and very real, learn to live in the rawness and beauty of life. It is a movie about hope. One of the best movies I have seen in a long time.
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Beautiful, Sensitive Film About Addiction
scoochie920 January 2008
Ryan Gosling is such a hottie, and such a good actor, he could be working full time as a Hollywood heart-throb. Thank goodness he chose to take part in this somewhat small and controversial movie.

A story of two people floating about, wanting to do the right thing, but truly adrift--not knowing how to get there.

One is a child, bombarded by the desire of others to get her into the drug business, and the other is her teacher, a drug addict who feels it's his duty to protect her... But of course, he can't, because he is an addict himself.

The acting is phenomenal all around, and the story is absolutely beautiful. Anyone who has ever experienced addiction, or been close to someone in that situation, will absolutely love this story.

It's a profoundly real story... and it's a story of hope.

Watch it!
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half nelson needs t o be reexamined
DjohnsonC-326 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I have been reading many reviews about this film for weeks so I was anxious to see it. I was hoping for something new.

There seems to be a very prominent but hard to overlook attraction by young, talented, new white filmmakers taking up the subjects of urban black and Latino lives as fodder for either liberal expression, societal outrage or possible fetishism. From "Maria Full of Grace", "GirlsTown", "Everyday People" (HBO), "Quinceanera" now "Half Nelson", we have story lines looking at underprivileged black and Latino folk through a prism that seems to be very similar. In these stories there is a little sadness, some anthropological observation, a fair amount of non judgmental characterizations and realism but as independent and daring as these films claimed to be, they are no better than watching "Dangerous Minds", a studio film of a few years ago. Don't get me wrong, I'm not mad at you. Most black filmmakers seem to be preoccupied these days with the three p's-Tyler Perry, Tyrese and taking the money so it's hard to complain when other filmmakers find the stories of black and Latino culture such a rich place to be.

So here comes "Half Nelson" as the latest in this stream. I really wanted to like this one but it falls into the same unfortunate traps as the others. I'm watching this film and seeing the absent of any black adult with any speaking part with a positive image for this young girl to benefit from. Ryan Gosling is a gifted and natural artist and Epps is quite good and real but the choices the writer and director make are choices that show where they are coming from. Dan brings in the light because the lives of the kids in his class are in the dark. With Epps' mom working so much are we to believe Epps is not loved? Hard to know. Her father is not around but apparently without a voice or point of view and dogged by her mother. Her brother is in prison but he doesn't seem to be evolved enough to realize that he must do differently when he gets out. And then there's Mackie's character, a good guy but he's selling product in the community. The man's a businessman but not quite the positive role model you'd like to have any kid look up to.

The polyglot nature of our world gives us all configurations of relationships in how people find family, opportunity and friendship but I never found what Dan is going through in his addiction particularly profound or revealing. Sure he's high half the time, sure he's aimless and passionate like a lot of aimless and educated young white and black folk who don't know what to do and how to affect change in this world but when you make a movie and lay your hero in a world he knows little about, give the world a little more credit. Switch the situation around. take out the drugs and go back thirty years and you have "To Sir with Love". The only difference, Poitier's character had a chip on his shoulder not a monkey on his back and the kids he was dealing with and Lulu's character particularly didn't want to take that chip off, she wanted to learn from him. I don't know what this 13 year old learns from Dan. Maybe she's learned how to take care of a guy who needs someone to take care of him, which really sets her up for an unfortunate job title in her future. We don't know what she dreams about for her future. We have no idea. She sure has not learned much about the civil rights movement in what is shown in the film. He is trying to impress on the kids to expand their minds in a semi Socratic educational style but these kids are sponges and a point of view from a teacher is not actually teaching. I want to know the filmmaker's point in making this film. I'm really curious. That's my two cents.
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The Best Film of 2006 You Didn't See
Bernie Sauer11 May 2017
Mr. Dunne is the middle school teacher every student wants: He's sharp, funny, sports a cool, unshaven mug, and coaches basketball on the side. By day, he brings out the best in his students as they discuss politics and systemic injustice. By night, however, we see a different Mr. Dunne – one who trolls the nightclubs, snorts cocaine, and slides deeper into a crack addiction.

Talk about a black and white movie.

It is after a basketball game that Dunne is found semiconscious clutching a crack pipe in a locker room by 13-year-old Drey (Shareeka Epps), an African-American who has grown up fast with a deadbeat dad, workaholic mom, and an older brother serving jail time. Even with her street smarts, she believes in her teacher, helps him up, and begins a tentative friendship in the most remarkable and overlooked film of 2006.

Obviously, this is a tough film to watch, and it isn't one of those inspirational teacher/mentor movies either. Instead, it's a character study of two people, both flawed and frustrated, who have at least one thing to hope for: one another.

Half Nelson doesn't walk down the predictable path of dire revelations and grungy lost causes as most films about drug addiction do. Rather, director and co-writer Ryan Fleck rejects the obvious and captures a plainspoken sympathy for Mr. Dunne and observes without interfering. Where the film works best is in the wordless scenes complemented by the hauntingly beautiful music of Broken Social Scene.

Where the film shines is in Ryan Gosling's performance as Mr. Dunne. Working without pretense or exaggeration, he makes Dunne charming yet vulnerable, casual yet dominating. Gosling is so uncomfortably real that it would be a mistake to judge him and not embrace him; condemn him and not sympathize for him.

Half Nelson has "independent film" written all over it because of its unappetizing subject matter and sparse public exposure, but that's what makes it so special. Being a movie critic isn't about panning big, Hollywood films; it's about informing people like you that there are other cinematic gems out there. Take my word for it: watch this movie and tell me what you think.
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The Life You Save May Be Your Own
wes-connors7 June 2009
"Ryan Gosling stars as Dan Dunne, a young teacher whose edgy yet brilliant approach to history inspires his inner-city students to think for themselves. But, outside the classroom, Dan's life is spiraling out of control. Wrestling with inner demons and nursing a serious drug habit, Dan finally hits rock bottom - witnessed by one of his troubled students, Drey (Shareeka Epps). With an unlikely friendship built on a shared secret, Dan tries to steer her away from a small-time drug dealer (Anthony Mackie). But no matter which way they turn to survive, their lives will change forever," according to the film's official synopsis.

"Half Nelson" suffers from too much of the wobbly "hand held" camera technique which, frankly, isn't necessary to make the film look more realistic. Yet, the story, by director Ryan Fleck and partner Anna Boden, and characterizations are good enough to overcome this distraction. The marvelously written screenplay is full of nuances, which serve the main point - showing the interconnecting ways drug addiction can infect the human spirit, when people like those played by Mr. Gosling and Ms. Epps are needed to play much more positive roles in a troubled world.

Gosling's "Academy Award" nomination for "Best Actor" is clearly understandable; and, Epps could have easily won some "Best Supporting Actress" consideration. At least, the "Independent Spirit Awards" recognized the memorable pair's delicately played teacher/student roles. Everyone else in the cast is excellent, as well. And, the non-melodramatic ending leaves "Half Nelson" full of hope.

******* Half Nelson (3/22/06) Ryan Fleck ~ Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Gabriela Curnen
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The Ryan Gosling Film
he_who_leads23 June 2008
Dan (Ryan Gosling) is a drug-addicted high school history teacher. Drey (Shareeka Epps) is one of his students, who can see herself possibly following in her brother's footsteps and working for a local drug dealer. Dan and Drey strike up a friendship.

Dan is a smart, fundamentally decent man leading a life of quiet desperation. His ex-gf, Rachel (Tina Holmes), tells him that some people get better, and Dan is adamant in his response. Not him. Change is not for him. To another girl, he explains how he tried rehab, but it doesn't work for him. And yet Dan's desire for change is shown in his lessons to his students. He constantly describes opposites - up and down, left and right - and talks about change. From one breath to your next breath, change has happened. And yet Dan's affliction just provides more and more of the same.

The film is all about Ryan Gosling, who gives us a complete portrait of his character. You just can't take your eyes off of this guy. Whether babbling under the influence or talking with real passion to his students or just sitting quietly saying nothing at all, Gosling shows us a man, who has a lot to give, but is held down by his affliction. The out-of-nowhere flashes of humour and the many moments of vulnerability completely endear us to Dan. His friendship with Drey arouses moral instincts in him that brings his self-loathing and helplessness more to the surface. We understand Dan, and our understanding of him is mirrored in the eyes of all the supporting characters, played out by a perfect ensemble cast. So much is conveyed just in the briefest character exchanges.

So the film succeeds with strong performances and making sure all the pieces fit together with respect and care. And yet the finished puzzle isn't really as gripping as it should be. Maybe because we've been through this material before, or maybe because this is a film that lives through its many small moments and observations. With tense character-driven material like this, I was sort of expecting more flash and meltdown, but this isn't that sort of film. This is a film, where you can admire the focus, commitment, and quality, but its a slow burn - not a big jolt to the system.
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Unremitting Study of Lives in the Balance with Genuinely Superb Work by the Leads
Ed Uyeshima29 April 2007
Two knockout performances dominate this uncompromising and emotionally visceral indie. Directed and co-written by first-time feature director Ryan Fleck, this 2006 drama pulls no punches and offers no cheap sentiment in the story of two people intractably bonded by their mutually desultory existences - Dan Dunne, a crack-addicted Brooklyn middle school history teacher, and Drey, a 13-year old student in his class burdened by an overworked mother, a brother in prison, and an insinuating drug dealer named Frank. Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden establish Dan's gifts as a teacher almost immediately as the character engages his class with natural ease. It becomes clear that this is not going to be a fish-out-of-water story but a more complex study of a man caught between his passion for teaching and his hopeless need for the next fix.

Dan's self-defeating effort to separate the duality in his life is what provides the impetus of the plot, as there are no simple explanations offered for his drug-addled life until we catch a glimpse of his emotionally disconnected family later on. Much like what Vera Farmiga achieved in "Down to the Bone", Ryan Gosling dissects his character with textured precision and conviction. He honestly earns our attention and even our compassion despite the selfishness Dan displays at times. Matching Gosling all the way is novice Shareeka Epps, who plays Drey with almost unnerving steadiness. She affectingly conveys the self-protective insulation her character has against a world too ready to use her.

Together Gosling and Epps remarkably achieve an unexpected symbiosis that makes Dan's and Drey's ongoing struggles palpable. The supporting cast is uniformly strong with effective turns by Anthony Mackie, who shows surprising depth in what could have been a stock villain role as Frank, and by Karen Chilton etching the regret and exhaustion in Drey's mother in just a few brief scenes. Even though the film was done on a miniscule budget, it doesn't feel cheap with particularly strong work found in Andrij Parekh's intentionally bleached-out cinematography. The 2007 DVD offers a nice, unassuming commentary track by Fleck and Boden, but the rest of the extras are not very interesting - a gag reel, three understandably deleted scenes and four extended scenes that really don't add much more insight. However, the film itself is exceptional work.
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Bear with it...it truly is brilliant.
Kush Duncan25 April 2007
Half Nelson, to be totally honest, does tend to drag you along because the theme and story definitely aren't gripping. In fact, here's the summary: A drug addict history teacher and a clever young black student develop a strong friendship and end up changing each other's lives. Sound boring? I thought so but the raving about Ryan Gosling and his Oscar nominated performance attracted me and plus I've got a lot of free time in my hands as well. By the way, he was brilliant for an actor of his experience and definitely deserved the nomination....but just the nomination since he really had no chance against Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland). Anyway if you start watching the movie and you think "Damn! This is too slow and the plot isn't going anywhere" don't give up just bear with it till the end and I guarantee you'll feel fully satisfied and that you've just watched a brilliant piece of art.

The message is another thing to rave about as well because the movie isn't only trying to tell the viewers that "drugs are bad...especially if you're a teacher" but also you'll note that the main character (Ryan) has no racial distinction. And he feels that Blacks and Whites shouldn't be judged differently and it will probably make anyone who watches it feel the same way....or at least most of us (I really can't imagine a member of the KKK's view of black people alter in the slightest after watching it.) But the message is powerful and beautiful and I felt very good inside after watching it. My point here is that don't only expect an amazing performance but also an amazing movie in general. I'd give it 7/10.
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A Remarkable Variation on the Teacher Saves Student Theme
evanston_dad3 April 2007
Ryan Fleck's writing and directorial debut is sober and even somewhat glum, but it boasts a tremendous and committed performance from Ryan Gosling in the lead role; an understated and sweet performance from the young actress Shareeka Epps in a supporting role; and an intelligent, thoughtful, spare screenplay that avoids falling prey to easy sentiment.

Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a young history teacher from a liberal family who himself has liberal ideas and a charismatic way with his students. They like him in a guarded way, despite the fact that he's white and part of the institution that most of them, black kids from an impoverished neighborhood, have been taught to distrust. Dan is filled with the kind of optimism that many of us had coming right out of college, when we cared passionately about our beliefs and believed we could make others care as much about them. However, Dan's promise as a teacher is severely limited by his addiction to crack, which consumes his personal life and turns his lectures into chaotic ramblings. One of his students, a quiet girl named Drey, finds Dan after school hours stoned in the girls' locker room, and an unlikely bond forms between the pair. Something about witnessing this intensely private and human side to her teacher makes Drey able to trust him and open up to him more than she can to anyone else in her immediate circle, which includes a well-intentioned but distracted mom, a brother in prison, and a no-good drug dealer friend of the family, who wants to put Drey to work delivering to customers. Meanwhile, something about the encounter works the same effect on Dan. It's as if being caught in the act removes the burden of secrecy, and he can let his guard down when with Drey. The two begin looking forward to their casual encounters and conversations, and each fills a void in the other's life.

This isn't at all creepy or inappropriate. Drey may have a harmless crush on Dan in the way that young students often do on their teachers. Dan, for his part, becomes protective of Drey, and tries to convince her to stay away from the drug scene even as the example he sets conveys the exact opposite. He tenaciously clings to the belief that one man can indeed make a change even as the indifference and hardships of his immediate world tell him otherwise.

"Half Nelson" paints a grim and harrowing picture of drug addiction and loneliness, and much of it is painfully depressing. But there's a tremendous warmth working under the surface of Fleck's film which prevents it from feeling nihilistic. Dan and Drey are both good people, trying to make their way in a world that doesn't always reward them for simply being good. The conclusion of the film is only mildly uplifting. We have the feeling that Dan has weathered some sort of crisis and has made some realizations about himself and his addiction, but the movie ends before we see what he does with that insight. He may ultimately be o.k., or he may not. What's more important is that Drey will be o.k., and one of the things I liked most about "Half Nelson" was its suggestion that many times the most effective role models are those who show us who we DON'T want to be, rather than those who we want to emulate.

Gosling proves himself to be a young actor to watch with his performance here. Not once does he step out of character, and he exhibits a tremendous screen presence. He's able to charm us as much as he is his students. Shareeka Epps has a sweet, warm quality to her. Most of the time she keeps her mouth set and rigid, and conveys the quality of someone who's determined to be disappointed in the world so that the world won't have a chance to disappoint her first. But every once in a while, a character will make her smile, and when she does, her face lights up the screen.

This is a fine film and one that lingered in my head. Highly recommended.

Grade: A
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Unassuming yet fascinating character study
pyrocitor18 March 2007
A charismatic elementary school teacher by day, and a self-destructive drug addict by night - right from its premise, Half Nelson makes its mark as one of the most intriguing and fascinating films of the year. While the storyline may seem to draw parallels to other such films of a conflicted mentor helping bright but underprivileged youths realise their true potential (ie: Finding Forrester), Half Nelson surpasses such clichés with its sheer unassuming honesty, leading to a very satisfying end result.

The film may attract some negative attention for seeming slow moving and uneventful, and while it is true that the story does lag on occasion, the film is really more of a portrait than a narrative tale. The character of Dan Dunne and his interactions with his students are explored thoroughly by director Ryan Fleck's brilliant minimalist script, which remains wonderfully realistic, thankfully objective and endlessly interesting all the way through. Fleck deserves credit for avoiding passing judgement of Dune in every possible way, but instead merely presenting the character as he is, in a very matter of fact and objective fashion, making the story all the more compelling. Half Nelson doesn't necessarily beat the audience over the head with anti-drug sentiments, but instead merely presents the character as he is, and allows the audience to fill in their own blanks. Half Nelson makes no assumptions and places no blame, simply presenting the situation in a frank and objective fashion, which in itself is already laudable.

Fleck may receive criticism for presenting the story from a detached, outsider perspective rather than drawing the audience intrusively into the story, allowing them to feel every moment of the characters' pain and hardships, but it is a bold touch which perfectly compliments the story, rather observing the situations of the characters in a non- judgemental, almost documentary style. The film also boasts simply fantastic cinematography, both capturing the character's drug-addled haze and transforming what could have been a dull and repetitive film to look at into one brilliantly and fascinatingly shot. These sort of quiet creative differences from typical mainstream films and highly innovative and compelling storytelling are what really set Half Nelson apart from other, similar films.

Ryan Gosling is proving himself to be one of the most interesting and thoroughly watchable actors of his generation, and Half Nelson is no exception, boasting what is unquestionably his strongest performance to date. Rather than seeming like an elaborate archetype of a drug addict persona, his passionate but self destructive Dan Dunne bristles with sheer realism - this is a real guy we're watching, dealing with genuine problems in a consistently believable fashion. The magnitudes of emotion Gosling portrays simply by staring at the floor or frowning are testament to his incredible skill as a performer. Newcomer Shakeera Epps is also a fascinating watch, overcoming any badly written teenage archetypes to play an equally realistic and compelling student character. Her character's being drawn into Dunne's catastrophic social life is made entirely believable through the dedication and understated charisma of the two actors. Anthony Mackie also provides strong support as a somewhat clichéd but still believable warm hearted drug dealer and street heavy.

Altogether, Half Nelson proves to be a consistently entertaining and interesting film, particularly by the incredibly strong lead performances and the tasteful and understated handling of a particularly delicate subject. Though it may lag on occasion, Half Nelson is quietly fascinating and unassumingly brilliant - one of the year's best films, and without question worth watching.

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Nelson's lessons linger
xander3413 October 2006
Half Nelson, the first feature by director Ryan Fleck, steers clear of the inspiring clichés of teacher-student films and the usual violence of films set in the ghetto.

Half Nelson is a character study, with a meager plot stretched into a one-act film. Not to say this is a bad thing. If one wishes to be thoroughly entertained, steer clear of this film. If one wishes to have a comfortable time at the movies, steer clear of this film. However, if one wishes to view a unique and risky example of independent cinema, see this film.

Any viewer can tell how much blood and sweat went into making Half Nelson, which was shot on 16mm for less than $1 million. Ryan Gosling is truly admirable for seeing something in this screenplay. After breaking viewers' hearts in The Notebook, Gosling carries this film. Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a Brooklyn middle-school teacher who is addicted to crack cocaine, with admirable subtlety. It's a performance that will make the audience cringe with anguish and sympathy as Gosling takes one self-destructive step after another.

It isn't surprising to hear that Half Nelson was once a short film by Fleck titled Gowanus, Brooklyn. That film starred the young actress Shareeka Epps as a bright, tough African-American girl named Drey in Dunne's class. The film characterized her unlikely friendship with Dunne, after she discovered his crack habit. Epps reprises her role in Half Nelson, and is astonishingly good in her feature debut, giving a real, down-to-earth performance. Rounding out the main cast is the charismatic Anthony Mackie as Frank, a local drug dealer who is actually nice.

Anna Boden's screenplay, co-written by Fleck, is filled with ranges of intensity, awkwardness, sadness, and humor. Fleck veers from the norm in his direction, giving an extremely claustrophobic look into the lives of the characters.

Half Nelson, although somewhat painful to watch, will stay with you for a long time.
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Addictively compelling turns by Gosling and Epps; one of the year's best films
george.schmidt14 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers
HALF NELSON (2006) **** Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Tina Holmes, Deborah Rush, Jay O. Sanders. Gosling gives one of the year's best performances and an Oscar worthy turn as a Brooklyn high school history teacher whose unorthodox teaching methods and charming personality are belied by his addiction to crack that is discovered by one of his students (newcomer Epps, in an amazingly natural debut and should also be nominated as Best Supporting Actress). Instead of a melodramatic life-lesson awkward approach the film focuses on the unlikely friendship bonding between the two not-so- dissimilar characters who each are fumbling to some sort of redemption. Novice filmmaker Ryan Fleck and his co-screen writing significant other Anna Boden craft a well-thought and well-fleshed-out character study into the minds of an addict and the results of his actions with well-timed sequences that flow fluidly from one set-piece to the next effortlessly with sprinkles of humor and a stand-out supporting turn by Mackie as a neighborhood pusher friend of Epps' that easily could've been a stereotype but is nicely sorted out into a complex narrative device. One of the year's best films.
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Negative portrayal of both NYC teachers and inner-city students
amygrrl7725 August 2006
As a NYC public school teacher and a black woman, I know not where to begin with the faults of this film. It is yet another portrayal of the great white emancipator who sacrifices himself to teach the poor colored children of the inner city. He disregards the civil rights curriculum provided him by a black principal in favor of his own agenda. In each of the teaching scenes, he is presented as the fountain of knowledge, giving the children all they need to know about the world. He discusses change with them, nay, revolution, but the students themselves are never depicted as empowered. With exception to Shareeka Epps, who is probably changed for the worse, the children are pawns in his power play to "change the world."

This brings me to the relationship between Gosling and Epps. She has but one positive black adult in her life (her, of course, overworked and underpaid single-parent mother) and yet she is most affected by a junkie, white male teacher, who adopts a "black-cent" and coaches girls' basketball. She, in essence, becomes his mammy, caring for him and nursing him even after he calls her -- a 13-yr. old -- a "bitch" and grinds on her during a school dance. The "mammy" itself makes an appearance in her drug-dealer, pseudo-big brother's home and its significance is never explained to her, perhaps because the writers themselves don't understand it. Or maybe they do, and "Half-Nelson" is their ode to it.

All in all, this film perpetuates the theory that liberal white teachers are doing children of color favors by "sacrificing their ideals" (as stated in the "Story" section of the official website) to teach in inner-city schools. It is riddled with inaccuracies about teaching in NYC, i.e. his being alone in a school; teachers are NEVER left alone in schools, particularly after school events. It also perpetuates the theory that inner-city children are surrounded by exclusively negative influences, from family members to neighbors, and are waiting for someone to step in and rescue them from themselves.

Critics who believe this film is inspirational need to examine themselves and what they really think about their relationships with and responsibilities to blacks.
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A film that is more real than anything.
Hidden Voice7 November 2006
A drug addicted teacher is trying to redeem himself and recover but falls further into his addiction.A young African-American girl is being drawn to the wrong side as she is left alone.They both have one thing in common.They are alone and lost and they are full of despair.They are searching for a friend that understands them,a friend they can share their feelings with.They befriend but can't maintain their friendship.This relationship is often misunderstood or misinterpreted but they know that they are friends and they are trying to help one another.But they are separated by their conditions.Dan is deteriorating in his recovery from drugs.And Drey is further isolated and drawn to the wrong side of life.But in the end they find each other and see themselves as each other's hope.

Everything about this film is real.It's emotions are real,characters are real,situations are real.You can easily relate and connect with the characters and the situations they are in.It's extracted from our everyday lives.And it's an inspirational film with hope spreading out.It's not one of those clichéd and overly familiar tales about hope and redemption and finding oneself.It's unconventional approach makes it a standout film.A wonderful character study and compelling drama.It's disturbing to see one go through so much personal suffering.The nightmare of losing yourself.Some of the moments in the film really are hard-pressed but they were necessary.And they are done with mastery.This film is bound to bore those who look for those clichéd and conventional inspirational fares.But for those who are looking to get rid of those clichéd inspirational dramas,this is worth every look.It's the kind of film that keeps you going.

Rich in its performances and film-making,Half Nelson is another classic example of why Hollywood is the best.Independent cinema should be more recognized and it is.Gosling and Epps are a revelation.The chemistry and their individual performances are strikingly authentic and emotional.Mackie is brilliant as well.Fascinating look at life and its tragedies and hopes.Beautifully directed and written,with a different cinematography to aid the film.Its philosophical terms and historical references makes it a wider experience.I really loved its pacing and its authenticity.A really touching and feel good drama that must be experienced,thoughtful and intense.Definitely one of this years best Indie offerings.
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