Half Nelson

I do it now to get by, but now, I can handle it.

Another teacher movie?  Man, that’s like two.  Don’t worry, man, Half Nelson (2006) is like a drug movie too, so there’s that.  Drugs?  Man, I don’t know if that’s enough.  It’s got Ryan Gosling in it.  Oh, really?  Well, that might be enough.  I know.  Man, you don’t know me!  Chill, bro.  Don’t tell me to chill, man, I hate it when folks tell me to chill.  Okay, I’ll just leave you to it.  Thanks.

Daniel Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a teacher in an urban public school.  He coaches girls basketball.  He’s got a drug addiction that gets him in some financial trouble.  On the other side of the story is Drey (Shareeka Epps) who is an incredibly precocious 13 year old girl.  She finds Dunne high in the bathroom one night and there’s some tension there.  Her brother is in jail, her mother is an EMT with irregular shifts, her dad’s nowhere, and she’s a little beholden to Frank (Anthony Mackie), her brother’s gang boss.  They both got troubles.

This movie is a lot like Detachment (2011) in that you’ve got a teacher the students like who has a lot of baggage going on that they don’t always see.  There are three major differences.  First, the central character is an existential hero in Detachment, but a materialist (philosophically) hero in Half Nelson.  Second, a student sees the baggage in Half Nelson and keeps him tied to Earth while it is a strange girl in Detachment and the students, if anything, emphasize his detachment.  Finally, the movies are written and directed very differently.  That last one sounds a lot like, “The big difference is that they aren’t the same movie.”  Well, alright smart-one, you watch the two movies and say it better.

I’m tempted to say Half Nelson is the better movie, but that’s because (a) I am inclined towards conventional filming and (b) Ryan Gosling is possibly my favorite living actor.  Don’t get me wrong, Adrien Brody is great in that movie.  They’re both great, but Brody isn’t my favorite.

Ryan Gosling is quite terrific in this movie.  He plays a functioning drug addict that is actually believable.  He also, generally speaking, is able to communicate that there’s a lot more going on inside his head than he lets on.  He does this better than most actors you’re likely to see.  I’m not sure how much of it was intentional, but when he starts waxing on some of his would-be profundity, he seems to believe it totally (which is common of would-be intellectuals).  But he’s terrific.  He just has to look at you.

Shareeka Epps was similarly terrific.  I’d go so far as to say she might have been better than Gosling.  I am a major appreciator of the Just Looking school of acting, but when it comes to line delivery, she’s tremendous.  She was 17 when they made the movie, which kind of explains why she seemed not 13, but I bought it.  Having watched The Wire (2002-08), I’m willing to accept precocious young people when they’re witnesses to urban life.  She is very much a partner in this movie.

Everyone else gets a solid support.  Mackie, I think, needed some more time to present an actual perspective, but he was ambiguous and that’s nice to see in a semi-villain.  His appreciation for racist sculpture is, if nothing else, interesting.

Is that Cat Power?  No, I just checked, apparently it isn’t.  Still, the music is just terrific.  The credit says Broken Social Scene which isn’t very encouraging, but I can believe it.  Sound unheard–as I find these CDs to be sometimes tenuously linked to the movies–here’s the soundtrack.

Sometimes I don’t like parallels.  They annoy me because they don’t necessarily highlight or improve a message.  But here, I did kind of like the dialectics.  Daniel keeps pushing it on his students (instead of the set curriculum).  And that’s Daniel.  The drugs, the kids, and him.  For some reason, I didn’t mind it in this movie.  A lot of that has to do with Gosling, I’m sure.  I mean, I almost accepted The Ides of March (2011), but then, obviously, couldn’t.

The movie is directed by Ryan Fleck who co-wrote with Anna Boden.  He sets up the camera and lets Gosling work, and so that’s straight-A work to begin with, but he knows where to put the camera too, so that’s an A+.  The movie is about these two characters first and the ideas second–the appropriate proportion, I think.  The writers, despite some rather undergraduate-level thoughts, do not subject us to doses of quote-hauling pomposity that they so easily might have done.  They do intercut these bits of history spoken by the cast of students and I’m not sure that was useful, but I’m sure on viewing number four I’ll like it.  I trust their instincts.  That’s what the first viewing did.

Yeah, this one deserves to be on your shelf–only $7 on Amazon.  It’s also available on Netflix.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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