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Deadlocked: Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson"

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire August 7, 2006 at 6:5AM

History has never seemed more of a burden than it does in "Half Nelson." Simultaneously denying the easily redemptive narrative form that places a noble white teacher at the head of an inner-city classroom for meaningful school-of-hard-knocks lessons ("Dangerous Minds," anyone?), while also reinforcing film's accessibility as a teaching and activist tool, "Half Nelson," directed by Ryan Fleck and co-written by Fleck and Anna Boden, depicts the downfall of a high-school history teacher unable to reconcile the past (his own and the world's) with the present. Though ultimately hampered by its own compromises, it's an admirably dark American independent of the variety we used to see with slightly more regularity about ten years ago.
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History has never seemed more of a burden than it does in "Half Nelson." Simultaneously denying the easily redemptive narrative form that places a noble white teacher at the head of an inner-city classroom for meaningful school-of-hard-knocks lessons ("Dangerous Minds," anyone?), while also reinforcing film's accessibility as a teaching and activist tool, "Half Nelson," directed by Ryan Fleck and co-written by Fleck and Anna Boden, depicts the downfall of a high-school history teacher unable to reconcile the past (his own and the world's) with the present. Though ultimately hampered by its own compromises, it's an admirably dark American independent of the variety we used to see with slightly more regularity about ten years ago.

Directed with the social-realist agility of a Jim McKay film ("Girls Town" has aged very well, as a recent screening attested), if with slightly more flair, "Half Nelson" follows Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) as he battles both his own fears of not reaching his 13- and-14 year old students and his own increasingly devastating drug addiction. Rather than focus on his trials in the classroom, however, Fleck and Boden wisely move out of the school, leaving his teaching lessons (which, vaguely centered on opposing forces and social upheaval, could use a more historical, anecdotal approach, perhaps) less as narrative anchors than flee-floating treatises circling around the psychologies of its two central characters. In addition to Dunne, "Half Nelson" zeroes in on his student Drey (Shareeka Epps). Left to her own devices by a caring but overworked single mother (Karen Chilton, who projects limitless compassion and depth in a necessarily limited role) pulling late-night shifts as an EMT worker, Drey remains stubbornly wise, yet as impressionable as the next kid--and the film thankfully doesn't allow her environment to determine her interiority.

Fleck introduces Drey in a wonderfully nonchalant cutaway in the opening scene: the entire classroom is listening to Mr. Dunne engagingly lecturing his students on social change, yet Drey, a medium close-up of her face breezily inserted at the end of the sequence, might just be inspired. That's why it's truly crushing when she discovers Mr. Dunne smoking crack in a bathroom stall in the girls' locker room after a basketball game; directed with horrific verisimilitude, Dunne's hitting rock bottom registers with the appropriate thud. This mortification breeds some ultimate understanding though, as a tenuous friendship develops between the two. When local drug dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie) becomes more of a presence in her life, she ends up torn between two distinctly dubious father figures, "role models" at each end of the supply-and-demand pitfalls of her urban environment, each stamped with his own brand of moral relativism.

Though its gritty look (lensed by ace DP Andrij Parekh, whose 2002 short film "Dead Roosters" demonstrated his capability for expressionistic realism) indicates a subjectively harrowing "drug film," the central conflict is more tied to the limitations of the American education system and the gaps that so frequently must occur between idealism and pragmatism, social reform and playing by the rules. It's a film about immobilization--spiritual, professional, physical--and its persuasiveness is greatly tied to the actors. Gosling, who in recent years has become one of our most acclaimed American actors, sometimes seems too mannered, yet as actory as he can be, with his downcast eyes and hushed tones (often his intonations and physicality make everything he says seem like a seduction, however inappropriate), there's no doubt that this is a rivetingly lived-in performance. Epps is often his equal, punctuating her defensive stoicism with the occasional violent outburst; it's internalized, angry work. Meanwhile, Mackie ("She Hate Me") adds another nuanced portrayal to his growing roster of conflicted yet egotistical, self-protective young men.

This film is not without its limitations. There's one truly awful bit of filmmaking, which ironically intercuts a visit with Drey to Frank's dubious inner-city home with Dan's visiting his ghastly suburban parents, prone to spouting casual racism and reminiscing about their good ol' activist days and Daniel Ellsburg. Even more problematic is its strain of audience-courting, most apparent in its final moments: half of the viewers can go home feeling they've wallowed in unrelenting "rawness" while the other half can exit with the safe knowledge that everything came to a redemptive head. It's a slightly false ambiguity very particular to American independent filmmaking, nearly perfected by Lodge Kerrigan (whose monumentally disturbing subjective-experience whirlwinds often seem to funnel down into the "for the love of a child" cornball cutesies), in which the audience is patted on the back for taking such a dark trip. Too often, Fleck and Boden end their scenes with a joke or a bit of bemusement, undercutting the frayed nerves that have been so boldly exposed. Yet if there are quite a few pulled punches in "Half Nelson," the film remains smartly dialectical and unencumbered by the rigid formalities of the genre it's attempting to bust wide open.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well the editorial manager at the Criterion Collection and contributor to Interview and Film Comment.]

Shareeka Epps in a scene from "Half Nelson," opening this week in theaters. Photo provided by ThinkFilm

Take 2
by Michael Joshua Rowin

"One thing, does not make a man" says Ryan Gosling's cokehead teacher Dan Dunne to impressionable student Drey, the only person who knows his after-school secret. And one "thing" does not make a film, try as "Half Nelson"'s creators might to have next-big-thing Gosling save their movie. You can't blame them: a mess of addict drama, school drama, and ghetto drama cliches, "Half Nelson" claws and swipes at partially formed ideas--an underwhelming (and under-complicated) mentor squabble between Dan and drug-dealer Frank over Drey's livelihood; non sequitur left-wing history lessons imparted by Dan's students; our hero's hilarious blown-circuit classroom rants about dialectics and change--until nothing remains but an empty center desperately craving a stellar performance. Whether the burden was too much for, or too eagerly anticipated by, this well-intentioned indie's up-and-coming star can only be guessed, but the results are the same in any case. Gosling treats viewers to the same well-worn gestures (running a hand across his face, intelligently tugging at a week-old beard to suggest deep physical and existential despair) and tortured, world-weary, smart-aleck smirks (and he looks so damn good doing it!) made de rigueur poses for junkie cool by "Trainspotting" and "Requiem for a Dream." If "Half Nelson" is only half-vital as a puffed-up "issues" film, then Gosling isn't for one moment believable or empathetic in a role than needs enormous reserves of believability and empathy to strengthen an otherwise textbook character study.

That may seem harsh, but by singling out Gosling's self-satisfied, image-conscious playacting I wish to point out a problem common to films like "Half Nelson," films that most certainly have their hearts in the right place but suffer in execution: while a veritable statement of social ills to those "behind" the film, it can be treated as simply a moving gallery of head shots for those in "front."

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes film reviews for L magazine, has written for The Independent, Film Comment, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]

Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling in a scene from "Half Nelson," opening this week in theaters. Photo provided by ThinkFilm

Take 3
by Nicolas Rapold

Only a few days after tossing off a routine in a bar about making a difference by changing even one person, twentysomething teacher Dan (Ryan Gosling) does leave a deep impression on someone--when one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), stumbles upon him freebasing in a bathroom stall of the girls' locker room. Gosling ("The Believer") is the heavy-lidded highlight of "Half Nelson," a fluid, affecting, but slightly overstated mash-up of slow-motion addiction free fall, quixotic urban classroom inspiration, and the burgeoning subgenre of recent-college-grad-in-a-Brooklyn-sublet bildungsromanette. Loose-limbed and stubble-bearded, Gosling is charming and a pleasure to watch, working his preteen crowd with syncopated ease and unafraid to embrace the self-satisfaction that flickers behind the soulful searching for one true thing. In that stall scene (Dan says little and is miles away, but Gosling is more present than most actors playing sober), or in a short-circuited confrontation with Drey's drug-dealing family guardian, the movie is at its engrossing best, with Gosling allowed all the room he needs to maneuver.

Like many drug-related dramas, the collision between biochemistry and broken dreams is front and center, but filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden riskily up the ante by expanding those dreams to the political level. Dan isn't struggling to hold down a job or keep a woman, he's trying to cram dialectics and everything from Attica to Pinochet into inner-city kids, the better to achieve ultimately what his genteelly dissipated ex-hippie parents couldn't sustain. Students deliver book reports on 20th-century injustices to the camera, often abruptly punctuating other sequences. This would be an interesting move if the ideals involved didn't seem to seep into the movie's bumpy hayride of an ending, which undermines with trite turns the drift the movie has legitimately built up till then.

[Nicolas Rapold is a Reverse Shot staff writer, the assistant editor of Film Comment, the film editor of Stop Smiling, and a regular contributor to the New York Sun.]