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Half Nelson (2006)

May 9th, 2007 · 2 Comments

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Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is introduced trying to clean himself up and make it into work, teaching 8th grade social studies and coaching girls basketball in Brooklyn. One of his brighter students, Drey (Shareeka Epps) lives with her mother. Her brother is in jail and with her father a no-show, the drug dealer her brother is doing time for (Anthony Mackie) looks out for her.

After a basketball game, Dunne is visited by his ex-girlfriend (Tina Holmes), who’s cleaned herself up and gotten engaged to a guy she met in the program. Dunne adjourns to the empty locker room to smoke crack. Drey walks in on him and her teacher falls on the floor. She stays with him until he’s sober enough to give her a ride home.

Neither Dunne nor Drey are a big hit with their peers. Dunne is reprimanded by the principal for failure to follow the assigned curriculum. Drey weighs going to work for her dope peddling surrogate father, the only person she knows who shows up for her games. Teacher and student become friends of sorts, and he tries to keep her away from what he considers to be unsavory elements.

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Director/co-writer Ryan Fleck and editor/co-writer Anna Boden met while Fleck was an undergrad at NYU, and Boden was enrolled in Columbia’s film program. Both were fans of the “oddball friendship” movies of the ’70s, like Harold and Maude, and wrote a screenplay about an idealistic, drug addicted teacher and his student, who’s trying to stay out of street life.

Hoping that a short film along with a script might win the attention of a producer, they shot a 19-minute short on video, based on the idea. Titled Gowanus, Brooklyn, it featured Shareeka Epps as Drey, and won a short filmmaking prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004.

Given the opportunity to make a feature film version, Fleck and Boden envisioned an actor in his 30s playing their lead, like Mark Ruffalo. Casting director Eyde Belasco got the script to Ryan Gosling, and though much younger, he wanted to do it. The project was only budgeted at $700,000 and was shot in 23 days, but Gosling’s performance earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

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In addition to getting a film made at all, I have to take my hat off to the filmmakers for their casting. Gosling reminds me a lot of Robert DeNiro in his Mean Streets days; he has a similar volatility and improvisational style, and doesn’t look unlike a young DeNiro. The two scenes he shares with Tina Holmes in particular have beautiful, sad texture to them, without either actor even saying much in the way of dialogue.

The inspiration for an ddball friendship flick and the basic setup here were good, but Fleck & Boden don’t seem like they were up for writing a screenplay. The film is oblique and self-consciously arty. Shot almost exclusively on handheld camera, it just sort of floats in and out of focus as Gosling’s character goes through his benders.

The musical cues – many provided by the Toronto band Broken Social Scene – are bombastic and out of place. The classroom scenes are pretty good, but I would have appreciated a lot more in the way of content and depth to the movie, which I really can’t recommend, except to say that Gosling is definitely an actor to keep an eye on.

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Tags: Drunk scene · High school · Master and pupil

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Invert // May 10, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    Joe, you have discovered my problem with this movie: fucking Broken Social Scene. I fucking hate that band. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told people this and they have flipped out because, OH, Broken Social Scene is just the MOST and how could I possibly NOT like BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE ARE YOU ALIVE REALLY?

    Seriously, really, I hate this band. And even without knowing that they are responsible for one of the many irritating aspects of this movie, I’m sure I picked up on it.

    I think Ryan Gosling has the eyes. He’s got some great stuff going for him. But moping and being useless only makes me angry.


    Also, you have to admit, The Queen was boring.


  • 2 Joe Valdez // May 15, 2007 at 1:54 am

    Invert, if this movie hadn’t already lost you, I’m sure it did when they killed the cat. Broken Social Scene will not appear on my IPod any time in the near future. They’re no Moby.

    Thanks for letting me know your feelings so I know what not to buy you for Christmas.

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