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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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).
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 teacheran 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."
*** This review may contain 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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