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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
[] Buy posters from this movie
by William Goss

"Cold School"
3 stars

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is all about opposing forces. He addresses his junior high social studies class on how such conflicts have prompted necessary change throughout the course of history. What he neglects to tell them is how his responsibilities as a teacher and a role model clash with his role as a drug addict, and as the title of 'Half Nelson' suggests, the hold of his habit isn’t easy to defeat. Sadder still is the inability of Gosling and company to overcome the banal pretense of this persistently dreary drama.

Dan lives his ramshackle life between bells and between highs, spending his days passionately encouraging pupils to become advocates for social change and coaching the girls’ basketball team, then spending his nights equally eager to salvage a faltering relationship or two amidst binges of drinks and drugs. He follows his own curriculum, much to the vocal dismay of his superiors, and takes part in his own after-school activities, much to the silent dismay of young Drey (Shareeka Epps), a student who comes across Mr. Dunne freebasing in the girls’ locker room after a game. Dan and Drey reluctantly bond after the encounter, although just about the only thing they have in common is her addiction to Tootsie Poops being seemingly as strong as his drug dependency. Heading home to an absent family – deadbeat dad, workaholic mother, incarcerated brother – the closest thing Drey has to a paternal figure is dope dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie), whom our hypocritical hero soon decides isn’t responsible enough to serve as her guardian, although Frank is likely the lesser of two evils as Dan struggles to break the habit and redeem himself both in her eyes and with her help.

Writer/director Ryan Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden take the narrative gist of their 2004 short, Gowanus, Brooklyn, and expand it into a wearisome feature, complete with all the wobbly cinematography and sluggish pace that any typical indie feature employs in an effort to be taken seriously. Another pretentious touch employed by Fleck and Boden has several students occasionally dictating historical events directly to the camera throughout the film, in an effort to further enforce the notion of impotent liberals who are all for change yet frequently fail to incite it as preceding generations have. It exists solely to provide another testament to Dan’s contradictory nature: he wants to make a difference as his parents had in the sixties, and even encourages his students to take such action, perhaps to compensate for his incapability to change his own life for the better, let alone the world.

True, as far as an inner-city druggie teacher melodrama goes, Nelson neither makes for a worst-case scenario of mawkish proportions, nor dissolves into a similarly shameless bid for awards attention that its film-festival pedigree seems immediately fated for. That doesn’t make matters any less contrived and faintly calculated, particularly when considering a foreseeable climactic meeting between Dan and Drey in the most drastically dramatic of circumstances. The approach isn’t overly cloying or pandering, yet it is generally aimless and inert, both remarkably unimpressive and impressively unremarkable. While there certainly is a worse movie in here, I have serious doubts that there is a better one.

Mr. Dunne insists that “one thing doesn’t make a man,” and he doesn’t make a movie either. Gosling certainly brings the appropriate gravity to his densely dysfunctional role, whether picking up a piece of chalk or a crack rock. While I may have missed his previously praise-garnering performance in 2001’s The Believer, in which he played an equally contradictive character, a Jewish neo-Nazi, his work here certainly rises above the tepid likes of Murder by Numbers, The Notebook, and Stay. However, his performance, as strong as it may be, simply isn’t sufficient for improving such a turgid tale. Aptly enough, Dan also claims that “one man alone means nothing,” and try as they might, the equally solid efforts of Mackie and newcomer Epps still prove futile in making this resoundingly hollow story develop into something truly noteworthy.

'Half Nelson' has managed to garner overwhelming critical acclaim since making the rounds at Sundance, among other festivals, and upon its theatrical release. Considering such overwhelming praise, it’s a shame that Mr. Dunne could only teach me how to become an opposing force. Then again, perhaps he’d just chalk it up to a lesson learned, a mind molded, and throw a few extra credit points my way simply for going against the grain.

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originally posted: 10/06/06 13:54:40
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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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