Film Reviews

Half Nelson Ryan Fleck

Rating - 10/10

There is nothing really new about Half Nelson. Even when describing it to those who have yet to see the film, it sounds like a movie idea that's been done many times in the past. But here goes...

There is a hip young teacher in an inner-city high school that has a drug problem, and the kids are the only thing keeping him going. A student finds out, and confronts him in order to help. Minus the ending, that's really it. So why the rating of 10? Mainly because of Ryan Gosling's portrayal of Mr. Dunne, and Shareeka Epps' portrayal of Drey.

Mr. Dunne is a white teacher in a predominantly black school. He teaches history, and focuses the subject matter around groups that have risen up against oppression in history all around the world. A viewer might expect it from the director, but there is no perceivable racial dividing line in the film between the kids and Mr. Dunne. The students adore their teacher and quiet down during lectures because he presents the subject matter to them in a really well thought out and engaging manner. The lectures however, eventually get less and less interesting, as Mr. Dunne's brain becomes more and more fried from his increasing drug use. He pauses more and often loses his train of thought, or just throws in the towel and designates it a study day and leaves the classroom. His wit, though, is maintained and his spirit seems indefatigable. He even manages to coach girl's basketball after school.

His home looks to be that of someone living somewhere just above, or just below the poverty line. He sleeps on a mattress on the ground with no sheets, his furniture is old with cushion bursting out at the seams, and he never seems to shave. He remains a functional addict amidst his imploding lifestyle, however. Often, after snorting a line he goes out alone for drinks all night frequently meeting and charming women with his slender physique and winning smile. The next morning is rough of course, and maybe a little underplayed - I've looked worse on seven hours of sleep. As the film goes on we see him getting closer to his student and member of the basketball team, Drey. Teach gives Drey rides home after practice and after school because her mom is forced to work double-time to make ends meet. Later, Drey finds out about Mr. Dunne's secret, but she doesn't judge him or even tell anyone...she doesn't say anything. She tries to maintain their friendship while Mr. Dunne falls deeper and deeper into hopelessness.

Drey is a bit of a tomboy. She's tough as nails, but has a soft side and a cute smile. Being from a tough part of town, she's faced with some decisions for herself. Early on, Mr. Dunne tries to protect her from shady characters in the neighborhood, but as he becomes less and less reliable those folks are the very ones offering to help her find a sense of stability. She meets Mr. Dunne again later in the film at a sort of crossroads.

The acting in the film is great, even by the classmates and children. This may seem easy enough to accomplish since it's just kids talking and hanging out, but if you've seen movies where kids are acting or reading lines you know it can sometimes be painfully transparent. Shareeka Epps does such a great job - you really get pissed off when Mr. Dunne is falling on hard times and becoming more of a junkie. But her character doesn't scream at him. She just looks at him with a look of disgust more powerful than any yelling could be.

The film has been smothered with nominations primarily for best new director Ryan Fleck, and breakout/best new actors in Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling. Epps as well as Gosling took top prize for best lead female and male actors at the Independent Spirit Awards, and Gosling was nominated for the Oscar. Believe the hype - it's a wonderful film that manages to dodge several overplayed ideas to come through as a smart movie full of believable emotional transformations. Junkie movies can be tough to watch, but this film is not nearly as draining as most yet still undeniably genuine. You'll want to come to class the next day and see if everyone's okay.