Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"Half Nelson," dir. Ryan Fleck (Oklahoma Gazette)

Head of the Class

Genuine surprise is no small feat for a movie, particularly when the picture in question deals with an inspirational schoolteacher and at-risk children. It might sound like familiar stuff, but “Half Nelson” is an extraordinary achievement -- a film that subverts cliché in its meaty tale of drug addiction, life decisions and the competing impulses that drive us all. One of the year’s best movies, “Half Nelson” will screen Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s Noble Theater.

Ryan Gosling gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Dan Dunne, a history teacher and girls’ basketball coach at a Brooklyn middle school. Smart and roguishly charming, Dan strays from textbooks to bring history alive for his students, most of whom are African American and Latino. History, he tells them, is an eternal consequence of opposing forces, a never-ending struggle that spurs constant change.

Dan’s own struggle manifests itself at night, as he feeds a crack addiction that leads him through New York’s drug-infested underbelly. He is eventually found out by one of his students, a 13-year-old girl named Drey (Shareeka Epps), who happens upon the crack-addled Mr. Dunne in the girls’ locker room. The encounter develops into a curious friendship. For Drey, a latchkey kid whose older brother is in prison, the teacher’s habit is disappointing, if not shocking. Dan lamely tries to fill the role of the girl’s mentor -- even if he doesn’t seem particularly suited for it -- and he warns her to steer clear of Frank (Anthony Mackie) a drug dealer who is friends with Drey’s family.

Part of the brilliance of “Half Nelson” is how director Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote it with Anna Boden, consistently defies audience expectation. It would have been easy to serve up yet another story of an inspiring teacher and ghetto children, and it would have been nearly as tempting to make Dan a flawed man saved by a young girl’s life-affirming grace.

But the film avoids either route. “Half Nelson” doesn’t trouble itself with the root causes of Dan’s addiction or hinting at a salvation that viewers hope will arrive. Like Drey and Frank, Dan pulsates with the complexities of life. And yet in spite of the often-brooding universe these characters inhabit, the film’s humanity and understanding spur its own sort of uplift.

The filmmaking is self-assured and respectful of its audience. Boasting documentary style, “Half Nelson” employs a narrative that feels elliptical. Director Fleck does not always spell out the characters’ actions -- much less their motivations -- but rather he allows their truths to unfold with a seemingly uncalculated randomness.

Ultimately, a movie as subtle and sharply observed as “Half Nelson” stands or falls with its acting. No sweat. Mackie is sheer charisma as Frank, and newcomer Epps is terrific as Drey, conveying a fierce intelligence in the most subtle of expressions. Both are excellent, but in the end this is Ryan Gosling’s movie. In a commanding and nuanced performance, he proves himself to be among the most promising great actors of his generation.


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