Monday, February 19, 2007

Half Nelson

Half Nelson is a movie so achingly true, so perfect. Most of the press these days is on Ryan Gosling’s anchoring performance as Dan Dunne, junior high history teacher and girls’ basketball coach in an inner-city school, but I believe that the actors surrounding him are just as good.

But Gosling is certainly worthy of the praise. He’s brilliant. Every movement by Dunne looks to be painful, every note scored on those sunken eyes of his. We watch his life, and we watch his descent. We watch it painfully.

But we also watch it through 13-year-old, African-American Drey, who strikes up a strange, demanding friendship with her teacher and coach Dunne. And at the end of the day, although he wants it, he can’t handle the demand. He’d much rather sink into his degrading life and take a snort of the line. Some days are so bad he can’t wait until he gets home to indulge. And that’s when Drey finds out his secret.

Drey has another dilemma, deciding between the two men in her life, in a troublesome life. Her mother works some long hours as a security guard. Her brother is in prison, and although she has a good relationship with him, his bad choices are rubbing off on the family. The brother's best friend, Frank, the one not caught during their last job together, has promised to take care of the family, but his influence on young Drey is something we watch with dual fascination and dread. And we wait and hope for Dunne to step it up a notch in the face of this situation.

Dunne’s is an inner struggle while Drey’s is an outer one. Both journeys are hazardous, dangerous, and we fear for each of them.

Newcomer Shareeka Epps is wondrous as young Drey. And Frank is played by actor Anthony Mackie; although he has several chances to be stereotypically bad in this role, he rejects that. His warmth towards Drey feels genuine and leaves us wondering.

The screenplay is skillfully written (by Anna Boden and director Ryan Fleck). Every scene involving Gosling shows Dunne’s progression down this hole, an amazing feat. Dunne is a wonder in the classroom, reaching beyond the unusable textbooks to really teach his passion for history. His work on the basketball court with these girls is terrific, and provides a powerful contrast to his life after school. And I found a poignant moment in Dunne’s treatment of the women in his life, when he uses them when he needs them and not before or after.

The movie really is quite depressing during some parts, and yet hopeful, largely due to the relationship between Dunne and Drey. You find yourself hoping that Dunne can pull himself out of a drug-induced, life-reducing fog to redeem his life.

This little film that only took 23 days to film is one of the best I’ve ever seen, let alone seen within the last year. It continues to amaze in its scope, its acting, its statements.

Gosling is so young that you wonder if he’s found the role of a lifetime or whether he’s really at the beginning of an incredible, long career. I believe it’s the latter.

"Half nelson" is a wrestling hold where the opponent's hand is over the top of your head, holding you in a vise-like grip where you can't move. A term that perfectly describes Dunne's life.

Thumb's up.


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