Sunday, April 09, 2006

Half Nelson (2006)

This reminds me a lot of the Joseph Gordon-Levitt screwed-up-kids film Manic. Both take premises that smack of Afterschool Special material and, through a combination of excellent acting, flavorful details and intense hand-held photography, make those premises work for the most part. The major difference is that Half Nelson, unlike Manic, doesn't completely fall the fuck apart in its third act, so we're moving forward in life and art. The story is a mash-up of two popular indie genres (The-Teacher-Who-Changes-Lives genre and The-Person-Who-Goes-to-Hell-on-Drugs genre), and it hits a lot of the expected marks along the way. What makes it worthwhile is the little details -- the character relationships are handled with a tact, subtlety and understanding that is genuine and increasingly rare. Ryan Gosling, as Dan, the teacher on crack, is both sympathetic and abhorrent, charming and dislikable; he's complemented by Shareeka Epps as Drey, the young student who befriends him (mature beyond her years yet still very much a child) and Anthony Mackie as Frank, the local drug dealer (far more complex than an out-and-out villain would be). Frank is also a father figure of sorts to Drey, which leads to no small amount of conflict as Dan tries to keep her from sliding into the kind of life he leads. It also leads to the film's best scene, where Dan confronts Frank in an attempt to protect Drey -- the way the scene develops feels sharp and honest while still being unexpected. The stellar performances deserve a lot of credit for getting these subtleties across. The film is held together by Gosling's extraordinary performance; he pulls off an amazing feat by delivering a performance as internalized as Heath Ledger's in Brokeback Mountain while at the same time affecting the extravagant outward tics and rapid speech patterns of the strung-out. Epps and Mackie are similarly impressive; Epps in particular suggests the kind of uncannily confident performances Dakota Fanning would be capable of turning out if Fanning were, you know, human. The big picture, alas, is as forced and obvious as the details are perfectly observed. Dan spends a lot of time trying to teach his students about dialectics, which leads to a lot of talk about change and turning points and the process by which things change. Not to fault director Ryan Fleck, but I understand that your film is about that. No need to shove it down my throat every twenty minutes or so, dude. Ditto the recurring device in which Dan's students break the narrative to recite famous historic turning points -- it's awkward and a bit pretentious. The glaring flaws drag down that which is capable of greatness, but they don't wound it mortally. Even with its faults, Half Nelson is a watchable and promising debut. It's the kind of film where the final confrontation is obvious from the moment the central conflict is introduced, yet when it gets there it's handled so carefully that you can't really complain.

Grade: B-


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