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DVD: Half Nelson

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Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, directed by Ryan Fleck (released on February 13, 2007)
One of the movies from this year's Oscar crop that came in under my radar was Half Nelson. The only reason that I sought it out on DVD was to see why the Academy nominated Ryan Gosling for Best Actor. Gosling's performance was worthy of that nomination, if not enough so perhaps to have ultimately merited the award. What really stands out, however, is the script -- cowritten by the director, Ryan Fleck, and his wife, Anna Boden -- and the ensemble performance of actors and actual students from the Brooklyn school where the film was shot, which we have to credit also, at least partially, to Fleck. It is a sort of twin with another unlikely movie of last year, Little Miss Sunshine, in that the filmmakers are almost complete unknowns and the story -- the relationship between a white middle school teacher, who is a secret drug addict, and the black student who discovers his habit -- did not likely make many friends in Hollywood at first. In spite of those challenges, this movie is well written, features incisively drawn characters, and seduces with its smart presentation of a life that is unfamiliar and yet believable.

Other Reviews:

Manohla Dargis | Christian Science Monitor | Village Voice | Rotten Tomatoes

Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, directed by Ryan Fleck
Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, directed by Ryan Fleck
Without giving away any of the significant details, it is enough to say that this movie does everything that Crash, Babel, and Traffic wanted to do and does it without being so damn annoying. The story is situated at the nexus between races in an urban Brooklyn school, with characters skirting the border between crime and legality, and the various plot strands -- two worlds, and only two instead of four or five, that are never meant to meet -- are eventually drawn together because of a random discovery in a locker room. What is most satisfying about this kind of movie is what it leaves unstated, in ellipsis between the actors' lines, or in between scenes. Furthermore, while one can watch and enjoy Half Nelson superficially, the artifice underneath is worth exploring (making the director's commentary worthwhile). The perfect arc of the story, beginning at a grungy coffee table and ending back at that same table (but with two people instead of one), is the frame for a desperate life.


Anonymous said...

i spent a month at the MacDowell Colony with Anna and Ryan right after Half Nelson was just out in theatres and they were the most unassuming, friendly people you'll ever meet. it's so great to see deeply talented people be recognized for their hard work. they also showed a short film of theirs one night while we were hanging out and it was hiLArious. it's called "Have You Seen This Man?" and if you can find it see it. it was on some compilation of shorts from Sundance kind of DVD.

Charles T. Downey said...

They give that impression on the DVD's commentary track, too. Thanks for reading!