(Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, US, rated R, 104 mins.)
The time has come
for closing books and long last looks must end
And as I leave
I know that I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong
and weak from strong
That's a lot to learn.
-- Lulu, "To Sir, With Love"
***** ***** *****
I first heard about Half Nelson earlier this year and was intrigued by the description. Unfortunately, films about caring teachers, like Dangerous Minds, and crack addicts, like Losing Isaiah, are usually well-meaning balderdash. So what to make of a movie about a man who is both caring teacher and crack addict? Well, it sounded like a potential disaster to me, and American indies have never been SIFF's strong suit.
Then I noticed the cast: Ryan Gosling (the teacher) and Anthony Mackie (the dealer). Gosling is a Mouseketeer-turned-critic's darling who hasn't won me over yet. The last film of his I caught was 2002's The United States of Leland. Not only is it a misguided mess, but Gosling's jittery turn had me wondering what all the fuss was about (as usual, Don Cheadle emerges unscathed). The classically-trained Mackie, on the other hand, has impressed me each and every time, from scrappy indie Brother to Brother to Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby to Spike Lee stinkeroo She Hate Me, which he miraculously manages to make (almost) worthwhile.
[In 1967's To Sir, With Love, Sidney Poitier plays an aspir-
ing engineer who takes a teaching job at a white high school
in Britain. In the end, it's more swinging sixties snapshot than
classic cinema, but Lulu's heartbreaking theme is timeless.]
So, I read a few reviews, and I asked around. The consensus seemed to be, "Not bad." Well, there are plenty of fine films to see during SIFF, so why would I want to waste my time on "not bad." Nonetheless, the curiosity was killing me. I made time in my schedule for the press screening. Missed it. The evening screenings. Missed 'em. The press department even offered up a screener. I decided to check out some more reliable titles instead. Curiosity aside, I just couldn't work up the enthusiasm. Months passed and I forgot all about Half Nelson. Until a few weeks ago.
I'm watching Ebert and Roeper one night and Kevin Smith--of all people--is sitting in for Ebert, who's recovering from surgery. I may not be the biggest View Askew fan, but his unbridled enthusiasm for Half Nelson is infectious. And Roeper is with him all the way. (Other guests have included, uh, Jay Leno and writer/director John Ridley, the best so far.) I decided I had to see this film. Here's an excerpt from Smith's spiel--plus video, if you'd like to experience the whole thing for yourself:
This pops. This pops in a big bad way. And also, when you look at it, it's the work of people who haven't made a lot of flicks. Like this dude, Fleck, he took the short film he had, blew it up into this feature, and it holds... You know, like it's an amazing piece to look at where, I sit there as a filmmaker and I'm like, this dude's way better than me. I've been doing this twelve years. This dude is phenomenal... There aren't enough thumbs in the world to do HALF NELSON half the justice it deserves. This is just simply an incredible film.
He goes on to declare it one of the best of the decade, and Gosling the equivalent
of Taxi Driver-era De Niro. Now, if you don't like Smith, this might actually scare you away, which would be a shame as Half Nelson is, indeed, one of the best films of
the year. On the other hand, I predict his praise will put punters in the seats who wouldn't otherwise take a chance on a slice of social realism like this. That can
only be a good thing, because this low-budget indie deserves to be seen by a
wide audience. Without word of mouth, that's not gonna happen, because 1) The
film is a risky proposition, and 2) Some scribes have made it sound too much like "spinach cinema." Well, it may be good for you and you may just learn something, but Half Nelson is neither preachy nor polemical. And if the buzz was lukewarm during SIFF, local critics have since come out of the closet, as it were, to sing its praises.
What impressed me most was Gosling's performance. I liked everything else, but that's what sold me. And now I finally understand what all the fuss is about. His Dan Dunne is a history teacher and basketball coach at a Brooklyn middle school. Dan has given up his dream of becoming a novelist. Fortunately, he likes to teach and he likes his students, most of whom are black. What he doesn't like is himself. In fact, he hates himself. Fleck and Boden drop a lot of clues, but they never come right out and say why that is, and this is one of the film's biggest strengths. (Because he was raised by drunks, because he hasn't been able to change the world the way they did in the 1960s...?) All we know is that at some point, Dan picked up the pipe. Where he lives, crack is cheap, it's easy to get, it makes him feel better -- heck, why not?
One day, however, 14-year-old Drey (impressive newcomer Shareeka Epps) catches him with the vial in his hand. Will she tell, will she try to blackmail him in some way? It's no spoiler to say she's not that kind of kid. It's written all over her face -- she's concerned. She's worried. That's what she does. Her dad's long gone, her mother's always at work, her brother's in prison. Drey's had to grow up fast. So while Dan is living in a sort of suspended adolescence, Drey's caught somewhere between childhood and an adulthood that's closing in on her too quickly. The two become friends. They spend time together. There is no sex...but there is sexual tension.
Other than his cat, his leftist books, and his old records, Drey is all Dan has. (The part may have been written for an older actor, but the 25-year-old pulls it off -- not least because he looks like he hasn't slept in ages.) It isn't enough. He used to be able to hide his addiction, but now it's become increasingly apparent that something is terribly wrong. Then even Drey, his only lifeline, starts drifting away as Frank (Mackie), for whom her brother is doing time, seduces her over to the Dark Side. Unlike Dan, Frank has his shit together. He may sell the stuff, but he doesn't do
it, and Drey just happens to be looking for a father figure. With Dan, the lines are fuzzy, with Frank the lines are clear: He'll take care of her if she'll work for him.
If this were a different movie, guns would enter the picture at this point. Or a drug bust. Or a fatal overdose. Half Nelson isn't that kind of film. At its worst, the coincidences pile up too heavily. Then again, all of the action takes place in the same inner-city neighborhood, as opposed to the schematic Los Angeles of Crash, where the same people keep running into each other over and over again. Most of the coincidences in Half Nelson make sense.
Best of all, Fleck and Boden, expanding on their 2004 short, Gowanus, Brooklyn, found the perfect way to resolve the central conflict--with a corny joke. Of course, the conflict isn't really resolved. Or maybe it is. That's up to the viewer to decide. But the final scene is so lovely--so subtle, yet funny--that it makes up for any missteps that have come before it.
In an ideal world, Half Nelson will go the route of last year's Junebug, i.e. the little indie that could. Word of mouth will continue to spread and enough people will see the film that Gosling, like Amy Adams, will garner the Oscar nomination he so richly deserves (and not just an Independent Spirit Award, which may be flattering and all, but...). Maybe it'll even be nominated for a few other awards besides--directing, screenplay, supporting actor/actress.
Not to take anything away from Mackie and Epps, but Gosling makes Half Nelson the triumph that it is and he's in pretty much every scene. Just to sweeten the pot, the film also features the always-reliable Jay O. Sanders and Deborah Rush as Dan's boozy parents and a pitch-perfect soundtrack from Canadian collective Broken Social Scene. What can I say? It pops.
Half Nelson is currently playing at the Harvard Exit (807 East Roy). For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755. HBO's criminally underrated drug war drama The Wire also segues from the streets to the schools for its fourth season, which premieres this Sunday. Click here for more details. If you don't have premium cable, not to worry: The first three seasons are all now available on DVD.