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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 36.59%
Average: 14.63%
Pretty Bad: 2.44%
Total Crap: 4.88%

4 reviews, 17 user ratings

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Half Nelson
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by Jay Seaver

"One teacher, one kid, one fine story."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: Movies about great teachers aren't unusual; they're almost standards in their way. Nearly as common are movies about great students. Often they're the same movie, with the two having a symbiotic relationship, keeping each other from being swallowed up by the pressures inside and outside the school. "Half Nelson" is that kind of movie, but it avoids being saccharine. Audiences may consider it inspirational, but in a very low-key way.

Our teacher is Daniel Dunne (Ryan Gosling); a white man teaching American History at a primarily black middle school in Brooklyn. He's not quite one of the great teachers, but he tries - he's writing a book, and he makes an effort to get his students to understand what history is and why it's worth studying rather than just filling them with the facts that will be on standardized tests. He also coaches the girl's JV basketball team, and both the team and his history class include Drey (Shareeka Epps), a thirteen year-old girl whose older brother is in jail, whose whose mother works long hours, and whose father is frustratingly absent. She's caught the interest of Frank (Anthony Mackie), a drug dealer who had previously recruited her older brother Mike. Oh, and speaking of drugs? Dunne's got a big problem with the crack; Drey finds him all but passed out in the locker room after the game.

This isn't a movie about achieving greatness; it's one about holding on. The basketball team isn't very good, and we don't get much indication that Drey is an exceptional student. Dunne is always at the edge of complete collapse. It's frustrating, because we see that he could be a great teacher if he got himself together; there are flashes of talent visible throughout. Similarly, Drey seems to be pretty together when we first meet her, so there's a certain amount of despair in seeing her pulled off the straight and narrow - if this kid can't rise above, what hope to the rest have?

Young Shareeka Epps had no previous experience when the filmmakers cast her in this part for the short film "Gowanus, Brooklyn", but she shoulders the burden of being a lead in a feature-length film well. Drey's a serious kid, seldom having opportunity to crack a smile, and Miss Epps has to give us a lot of conflicting emotions - nearly burying Drey's love for her brother under bitterness when visiting him in jail, or craving her teacher's attention and approval even when she knows that he's got serious problems of his own. If at any point she had failed to get the right balance, we wouldn't buy into the character, so it's lucky - and kind of amazing - that she hits the target so square.

Ryan Gosling gets a more outgoing character, and does a fine job in pulling the audience in different directions. We like Dunne in the classroom, or talking with parents after a basketball game: He's glib, funny, and engaging. He has to be; a white guy teaching poor black kids about the civil rights movement would seem insufferable otherwise. Leaving the school seems to sap the energy out of him, though, and as the film goes on, we see him get more and more disheveled and lost. When he tries to do something good, he seems adrift. Eventually, we start to wonder whether Dunne's concern for Drey will save or doom them both.

From the Q&A after the movie, the "original" short (the script for Half Nelson was written first, with "Gowanus" shot almost as a pilot) focused much more on Drey than Dunne. Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden - they co-wrote, with Fleck directing and Boden editing - do a fine job of making the pair's lives intertwined but also separate, never letting either completely usurp the focus of the movie, and letting us get to know them in the same cautious way they learn about each other. They use a lot of real locations, with cinematographer Andrij Parekh helping to capture the decay and despair of the characters' environment. They're also being able to change the focus or angle just a little to find a hint of hidden beauty or hope, and inject just enough humor to keep the situation from seeming completely impossible.

There's an understated idealism to this movie. Fleck and Boden bury it under a grimy environment and recitations (by Dunne, his colleagues, and his students) of the sometimes perverse injustice of the world, but underneath is the belief that one person, even if he or she has many issues without taking on someone else's, can make a difference in a handful of lives. It's not the sort of scale that makes an audience stand up and cheer, but there's hope there, no matter how well it's hidden.

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originally posted: 04/21/06 00:32:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Independent Film Festival of Boston For more in the 2006 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2006 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/19/10 MP Bartley Gosling is terrific, the film a little pedestrian and obvious. 4 stars
3/26/09 mariah LOVED this movie! 5 stars
1/09/09 Anonymous. ryan gosling's best role. :] 5 stars
12/04/08 Crabes This movie is a shiny star. What a slap! 5 stars
11/24/08 Shaun Wallner Interesting Movie! 4 stars
12/25/07 Tiffany Losco I think it was a let down. Teachers no better then the drug dealer 2 stars
5/27/07 WalkingDisaster Gosling was incredible! 4 stars
5/09/07 Anthony Superb performance and direction make for an affecting movie experience. 5 stars
4/16/07 Jessica. Excellent piece. 5 stars
2/26/07 greg pathetic waste of time 1 stars
9/19/06 Sandy great, different, real. 5 stars
9/13/06 Edward Connell A well paced movie depicting school personel personalities. 5 stars
8/06/06 Malcolm Mcvay I absolutely loved this movie! 5 stars
5/03/06 Anna great 5 stars
4/05/06 sara ryan gosling is amazing 5 stars
2/01/06 Todahe Best film in US competition at Sundance 5 stars
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  11-Aug-2006 (R)
  DVD: 13-Feb-2007



Directed by
  Ryan Fleck

Written by
  Anna Boden
  Ryan Fleck

  Ryan Gosling
  Anthony Mackie
  Jay O. Sanders
  Karen Chilton
  Tina Holmes
  Deborah Rush

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