Sunday, January 28, 2007

Half Nelson

Now, it might be a cliche to begin with a cliche, but there's an old axiom which describes the scenario of two opposites coming together: "when an irresistible force meets an immovable object." An illustration of this expression might be, say, Jennifer Connelly meeting Marlon Brando. Put more accurately however, this little epithet sums up a scenario we often face in our individual little insignificant daily struggles, and that is, conflict. People argue all the time. Some because they believe in something, others to play 'devil's advocate', or simply to put forward a view for the purpose of debate to test the strength of the opposite argument.

In 'Half Nelson', Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a high school History teacher who professes that History is the study of change. His view of history, possibly more at home in a University lecture theater than a junior high classroom, states that when conflicting forces collide, events are altered, and History simply records how things turned out. Dunne is also in the process of writing a children's book based on the principle of dialectics, but the book project has fallen by the wayside of late, thanks to his fondness for a bit of crack. (And I don't mean crack in the Irish sense.)

Dialectics is based on the principle that disagreements can be resolved through rational discussion. In other words, when propositions are put forward and met with counter-propositions, the product is either a synthesis of views, or at the very least a change in the direction of the dialogue.

The irony of Dunne's belief in the principle of dialectics is his own inability to change, and to try and vanquish his sincere and profound drug habit. A girlfriend from his past resurfaces towards the beginning of the movie, having successfully come through rehab herself, and with news of her engagement. This news seems to send Dunne into despair at his own inability to change, and he repeatedly goes on missions to get into a narcotic stupor, and on schoolnights to boot.

Dunne is a good teacher, but the effect of these mid-week benders on his professional image is undeniable. Although he is seen as something of a rogue by his colleagues at first, as his inevitable decline progresses, the principal in particular begins to come down hard on him, treating him more like a student than a teacher in some moments. However, he seems to remain popular with his students, and with one student in particular.

Drey is a thirteen-year-old student of Dunne's. Her maturity is evident from early in the movie, a product of her home life, where her parents are divorced, her brother is in jail, and her only paternal influence is a local smack-peddler. She is played by newcomer Shareeka Epps, and her relationship with Dunne is the axis of the movie. What starts as something of a teenage crush develops into a real bond between the pair, as their worlds couldn't be more opposite. However, the real proposition put forward by this movie is whether these two conflicting characters can bring about change in each other.

Half Nelson is a very good movie. I don't feel bad giving away these details of the story, because I can honestly say that there is a whole lot more in this film. Every character has a reality to them that represents a remarkable achievement for the film's writers, the relative newbies Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. This movie has something that Hollywood doesn't often even attempt to tackle: themes! The theme of change and opposing forces is at the heart of this movie, and it is dealt with in a mature, thoughtful and provocative manner.

Ryan Gosling's performance in 'Half Nelson' attracted enough attention so as to garner him an Best Actor Oscar nomination this year, and I have to say, after watching the movie, I can't fault the nomination. His character is complex because he is real. The conflict between his role as a teacher and his sincere drug problem is explored. His relationship with Drey, a thirteen year old student, is only inappropriate in the eyes of others, but their screen time together is very watchable. Considering this movie is punctuated by occasional silences, and most of it is in close up, Gosling's performance is quite an achievement. Unfortunately for him, however, he's up against Peter O'Toole and Forest Whitaker this year, but a respectable third place behind those two is glory in defeat as far as Gosling should be concerned.

Shareeka Epps too, is excellent as Drey. Her stoic expression only occasionally gives way to a smile, but this fits with her character, not giving her emotions away, and puts her at odds with Gosling's character, who wears his heart on his sleeve. Drey's guardian, Frank, begins getting her involved as a runner for his drug deals, and this sends Drey down a path that Gosling's character does his best to get her out of, but who is he to preach? He's a crack-head himself after all.

Half Nelson is a small indie flick, and could possibly be compared to something like the Squid and the Whale in its small scale, and it's intellectual content. However, this is a much better film than The Squid and the Whale. Half Nelson is tightly scripted, extremely well acted, and in parts is very moving. It is grounded in reality though, as the characters that populate it are not black and white in terms of morality. Every character is conflicted, and not defined by their given 'role' - an accurate reflection of reality. Gosling is a teacher, but a drug adddict. Frank (Anthony Mackie) is Drey's guardian, a drug dealer, but he's also got Drey's best interests at heart, for he feels he's the only one looking out for her. Drey, too, is a complex character, specifically in terms of her relationship with her teacher.

So I would urge you to see Half Nelson, and it gets two thumbs up from PCMR for showing exactly how to deal with themes which might be considered 'arty' for some, but in a manner that makes them accessible to a wider audience than for something like, say, 'The Squid and the Whale'. Gosling's performance is worth the admission price, but this film should be applauded for being genuinely full of depth, thought, and populated by real human beings.

The Verdict: Absorbing, thoughtful and entertaining. Ryan Gosling is excellent.
The Rating: 8/10

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