By day, Dan Dunne (Ryan Golsing) teaches history at a New York inner city junior high school, often by unorthodox methods. By night he's smokin' or sniffin' or drinkin' or all three, until his demons are silenced - as are his brain cells. Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of his 13 year old female students, catches him worse for wear after a session of substance abuse in the female toilets, and they begin to form a friendship that's tested when Drey, living with her single mum (Karen Chilton), is attracted to selling drugs for Frank (Anthony Mackie). Dunn's better instincts take over but has he left it too late?
Review by Louise Keller:
In his history class, Ryan Gosling's junior high teacher Dan Dunne exposes his students in the tough part of Brooklyn to the study of change. He challenges them, inspires them and makes them think about the issues in their troubled world and the hiccups of idealism. Historical turning points are the focus, but while he may be a positive influence in his students' lives, his own life, caught up in the twilight zone of hard drugs, is a mess. The roles of teacher and student become reversed in Half Nelson, and Gosling shines in his performance as a teacher who succeeds in his professional life but flounders to the point of drowning, as a human being.
'Some people change - not you,' says Dan's ex girlfriend Rachel (Tina Holmes), who has successfully come through rehab. The hand held camera reflects the uncertain, jerky nature of Dan's life. Indicative it might be, but it is also irritating. Dan is drawn to protect his 13 year old student Drey (Shareeka Epps), whose life is also being destroyed by drugs. But Drey is not a user. She is a victim. Her brother is serving a jail sentence for drug trafficking and now the local drug dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie) wants her on his payroll. It is only when Drey finds Dan in the toilets tripping that teacher and student suddenly finds themselves sharing a special relationship. Even though Dan protests 'One thing doesn't make a man; you just know one thing about me.' Theirs is a poignant relationship and Epps, in her feature film debut, displays extraordinary maturity.
Directed by Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anna Boden, this is a sad tale of characters lost in a world that has taken them captive. At the core is the unlikely relationship between Dan and Drey, and while the subject matter is dark, it is coloured by a smattering of faint hope that jolts the hold of the 'half-nelson' metaphor of the title.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
I have to confess first of all that this sub-genre leaves me cold. The drugs addicts depicted in grungy films about their stumbling efforts to survive their addiction all seem irritatingly self centred. To make matters worse, filmmaking duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have fallen for the con that a hand held camera delivers cinematic veracity. Not even Steadicam, but unstable handheld ... I can't think of anything more certain to make us aware of the filmmakers' presence. The combination looks to me like a self conscious film that thrives on its own negativity. Studied, anti-establishment, arthouse cinema that gloats over its moral superiority - which is rather ironic.
As you can tell, I am not swept away by Half Nelson; the filmmakers' notes to the film present it in quite a different light, which suggests they have something to say but failed in saying it - at least to me. All the same, I recognise the excellent work by the actors, and the well sustained mood is a sign of filmmaking talent. But the film is disjointed and gives the impression of being rather self indulgent. Complexity doesn't come from the stranglehold of storytelling holds like the half nelson; it comes from layers of relevance, meaning and recognisable human insight.
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HALF NELSON (MA)
CAST: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Curnen, Karen Chilton, Tina Holmes
PRODUCER: Anna Boden, Lynette Howell, Roseanne Korenberg, Alex Orlovsky, Jamie Patricof
DIRECTOR: Ryan Fleck
SCRIPT: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Andrih Parekh
EDITOR: Anna Boden
MUSIC: Broken Social Scene
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Beth Mickle
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 26, 2007