“Half Nelson,” the feature debut of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, may be the best American film of the year. Before I get into the reasons why the film should be taken seriously as an awards-contender, I first need to say that I deplore the horse-race mentality of award-season hype, that it’s completely antithetical to the creation of art, that it’s often unfair, subject to bias and politicking, and rarely gives attention to those who deserve it. But sometimes, you just got to play the game.
I saw the film again last night — after having seen it several months earlier — and it holds up beautifully upon second viewing. Ryan Gosling and newcomer Shareeka Epps deliver bravura performances; as Epps offers a multi-layered mix of ferocity and vulnerability, Gosling is astounding, a fucked-up bastard and graceful charmer rolled into one. It should come as little surprise that the actors embody opposing emotional poles, considering the film’s recurring thematic obsession with dialectics. Everything in the film beautifully captures the oscillating complexites of reality.
In one of the greatest moments I’ve seen onscreen all year, Gosling, with his big sad eyes, looks up helplessly from the ground at Epps; his hands is outstretched in an offering and admittance of weakness — another parental figure has failed the young girl — as the moody, funky tunes of Broken Social Scene echo on the soundtrack. It’s just brilliant filmmaking.
I would not say “Half Nelson” is the most mature American movie of the year. There is definitely something naive about its idealistic reach, about its underlying political rancor, about its big-hearted affection for all of its characters (except, perhaps, Gosling’s character’s parents). But it’s also so pure in all of these ways that it doesn’t matter. From the long-lensed, handheld camerawork that singles out its characters’ confused faces against the blurry backgrounds of Brooklyn to the direct-address historical lectures that the school kids deliver to the camera, the film never backs down, comfortable in its convictions.
Before any nominations are announced, “Half Nelson” will hit about $2.5 million at the box office — great for an indie film of its stature, but definitely not the type of ticket sales that are often associated with Spirit or Oscar nominees. “Half Nelson” is an underdog, of course, and distributor ThinkFilm hasn’t had much luck in the past pushing dramas for awards consideration, but I’d like to start the campaign rolling: Vote “Half Nelson.”