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Overall Rating
4.07

Awesome41.46%
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 Mel Valentin

"Unpretentious, thought-provoking indie filmmaking."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Directed and co-written by Ryan Fleck, "Half Nelson" is the kind of independent filmmaking that deserves wider acclaim and commercial exposure. Focusing on the unlikely relationship between a junior schoolteacher with a drug problem and one his students, "Half Nelson" could have taken the path of least resistance toward formula and cliché (and a potentially larger budget). Instead, Fleck and his co-writer/producer, Anna Boden, take the story and the characters into unexpected directions and that's all to the good, especially when the often conflicted emotions they create for their characters and their circumstances never feels cheap or forced, and when it reaches its climax inside a motel room, an emotionally devastating impact.

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a study in contradictions. By day, he's a history teacher who teaches mostly African-American students at an inner-city junior high school. Dan teaches his students about the Civil Rights movement with passion and idealism. By night, he's either coaching the girls' basketball team or getting wasted at local bars or nightclubs. Dan's problems are barely hinted at, but he's dived headlong into self-destruction through drugs (primarily cocaine) and alcohol. Dan's relationships with women are no better. Dan has a tentative relationship with another teacher, Isabel (Monique Curnen), but the reappearance of his ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Tina Holmes), becomes the latest in a long line of excuses Dan uses to pursue another alcohol and drug-fueled binge.

Dan's life takes a turn when Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of his students and a player on his basketball team, discovers him in a bathroom stall after a game, blissed out and passed out on crack. Drey helps Dan clean himself up and, in return, Dan drives Drey home. Acting first out of self-preservation then out of something more, Dan begins to learn about Drey's home life, a non-existent, deadbeat father, a world-weary mother who works several jobs to make ends meet, an older brother, Mike (Collins Pennie), in prison, and the stand-in role model/father, Frank (Anthony Mackie), the neighborhood drug dealer whose paternalistic interest in Drey hides less altruistic motivations.

With the premise, characters, and situations sketched out, Half Nelson seems headed in a predictable direction, toward Dan's redemption by becoming a friend and role model to Drey. In short, Dan wants to save himself, find some larger purpose, by saving Drey. Of course, his drug addiction (and as drug addictions go, it gets worse over time) and Frank's desire to lead Drey down the same path her brother traveled, prove to be significant, if not impossible, obstacles for Dan to overcome.

But Fleck and his co-writer Anna Boden upend what could have been a standard “white man/mentor saving an African-American student from hardship” storyline. Fleck and Boden aren't interested in following the typical conventions of the redemption drama, instead taking Half Nelson into more ambitious territory where Drey is less victim than knowing actor, less in need in saving (she does, to some extent) and more the (potential) savior for a seriously flawed adult. In that, Drey proves to be singularly unique character, a self-aware young adult attuned to the possibilities and consequences of her actions and the actions of others. That doesn't stop her from wanting what all children want, the unconditional love, affection, and appreciation of the adults in her life.

Which leads us to the ending, a minor epiphany and self-realization for Drey, who seems to take on the mantle of the lead character/protagonist, and, at most, the open-ended possibility of change for Dan, without the usual feel-good platitudes associated with redemption dramas involving drug-addicted characters. If Dan saves himself, it happens outside the timeframe of the film. Essentially, Fleck and Boden leave Dan's inner conflict (and its outward consequences) unresolved. If anything, Half Nelson leaves Dan where most drug addicts have to end up before changing their lives, either losing everything or already have lost everything.

Although some viewers might consider the lack of resolution in Dan's storyline problematic (it's not, from the right perspective), Half Nelson has other storytelling flaws, including a third-act that drags and the late introduction of Dan's parents, Jo (Deborah Rush) and Russ (Jay O. Sanders). Dan's painful night with his family all too readily places some, perhaps significant responsibility on them for Dan's drug and alcohol problems. It's a pity, especially considering the screenplay's earlier subtlety (e.g., leaving Dan's drug addiction largely unexplained, but hinted at in Dan's failed relationship and frustrated artistic aspirations) remained the better, less obvious approach.

Flaws aside, Half Nelson has a great deal to recommend it to indie audiences, beginning with Ryan Gosling's typically intense, authentic performance as the edgy, twitchy, often hungover Dan. Fleck and Boden surpassed themselves in picking Shareeka Epps for the role of Drey. Fleck and Boden ask Epps to show vulnerability, toughness, loneliness, and longing, and Epps pulls it off remarkably well, especially for a young, relatively inexperienced actress. Epps has had some practice, though. She appeared in the short film version of Half Nelson, Gowanus, Brooklyn, which won the Grand Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at the 2004 Sundance film festival.

There's no wrestling per se in "Half Nelson." Ryan Fleck borrowed the title from a classic Miles David be-bop song. Instead, Fleck wanted to use the phrase as a metaphor for what both characters, Dan and Drey, have to struggle through, drug addiction for Dan, inner-city life and the lure of drug money for Drey.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=13552&reviewer=402
originally posted: 04/23/06 12:20:39
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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
6/11/08 PAUL SHORTT IT CERTAINLY SEES THINGS IN A NEW WAY. UNFORTUNATELY, IT DOESNT SEE THEM VERY CLEARLY 1 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
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  11-Aug-2006 (R)
  DVD: 13-Feb-2007

UK
  N/A

Australia
  25-Apr-2007


Directed by
  Ryan Fleck

Written by
  Anna Boden
  Ryan Fleck

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



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