Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Movie List: Half Nelson (2006)

Film: Half Nelson
Director: Ryan Fleck
Nominations: 1 (Best Actor, Ryan Gosling)

There's a certain expectation from films about teachers, especially when they're put in charge of a class of "troubled" (read: mostly minority) youth. Teachers will change the world, help the children see the light of learning, and all in all rescue them from their broken homes and street gangs and send them on their way to colleges and careers instead of coffins. Its a story that's been done a hundred times, and each time the same story beats are hit. You'd think that teachers are the Greatest American Heroes watching these movies, and that in reality they must be extremely well-compensated for their monumental efforts to better the lives of America's children.

Half Nelson, the debut feature from writing-directing team Ryan Fleck and Anna Doden, turns these ideas on their heads by suggesting that maybe teachers can be just as damaged, if not more so, than the students they're left in charge of. Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) teaches history at a decrepit New York high school, winning over the approval of his students by being laid-back and, impressively, treating them as equals, making learning fun for them. This on top of coaching the school's girls basketball team. However, Dan is a wreck of a man: he lives alone, struggles with permanent relationships, and has a terrible crack addiction. He takes an interest in Drey (Shareeka Epps), a whip-smart student of his who accidentally discovers him using crack in the locker room. Drey is hanging out with neighborhood-guy Frank (Anthony Mackie), who is a small-time drug dealer. Dan tries to keep Drey away from Frank, despite the obvious ironies of the situation. Ultimately, the film posits Drey the question: which of these men is the lesser of two evils, the more acceptable "role model" for her?

The film is shot with a handheld camera, contributing to both the indie feel of the film and its realistic nature, looking like a documentary. There's a starkness to the story that's admirable, as it doesn't really make teaching look hard so much as make you wonder why Dan is the way he is. He's a bit of a rebel, opting not to teach the school's required curriculum in favor of discussing the dialectics of history, how things happen as the result of two opposing forces. The screenplay intelligently applies this philosophy to Drey's situation, as she's given two options in guardians: Dan, the coked-out teacher in a spiral of self-destruction, or Frank, the good-natured drug dealer who wants Drey to help her move his product. It then does something even more surprising in the third act, which makes the situation even more difficult. That's something admirable about the film: despite its suggestion in the film's final scene, it doesn't provide any easy answers, no sermonizing or "Oh Captain, My Captain" moments.

What really elevates Half Nelson, though, is the trio of young actors that headline the film. Gosling easily earned his Oscar nomination with this performance, making Dan into a sympathetic character even though he does very little to earn that sympathy. Its a trick he's pulled numerous times since (particularly in Blue Valentine), and proves that he's one of the most talented young actors working right now. Mackie, a personal favorite of mine, oozes easy-going charisma, making a character who's supposed to be a dangerous man for a young girl to be around seem like a perfectly acceptable choice in friend. He never lets Frank's good intentions for Drey disappear, and despite his errant ways, he's genuinely doing what he thinks is right for her. The film's best performance, though, comes from Epps, who was at the time 16 and making her feature debut. She gives a strong, magnetic performance as Drey, making the character a smart girl who's just trying to make it by. She can take care of herself, but with her mom always at work and her dad largely missing in her life, she realizes that she does need an adult figure in her life. That makes the choice between Dan and Frank all the more heartbreaking: she doesn't really get a responsible role model. And Epps is a marvel to behold, conveying the wariness and mistrust Drey feels toward both men while remaining confident in herself. And as one later scene proves, she can devastate with nothing more than a look. Five years later, and she's only appeared in four other movies, one of which was Wes Craven's My Soul to Take. Here's hoping she'll find great work again soon.

Half Nelson can be a difficult film to watch, since it doesn't allow much room for optimism in the face of adversity. But its inventive script and phenomenal acting makes this film a brilliant work, one that's definitely worth checking out, especially for Gosling fans.

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