Sunday, August 13, 2006

Half Nelson

Directed by Ryan Fleck
Written by Fleck and Anna Boden

Ryan Gosling is probably the only guy his age who really is an actor. I may be forgetting someone, but it seems like all the twentysomethings, even guys like Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, who have recently been pushed into that star category, don't have the true intention to find that early De Niro or Brando or Sean Penn territory--the guys we compare to the next wave. I guess, in short, the method guys.

Gosling has become the James Dean of our era through two roles--his intense turn in The Believer got movie geeks like me onboard for his talent, and The Notebook got all the girls onboard for his sexy, charismatic presence. Now, he's nowhere near as famous as Dean (and hopefully doesn't suffer the same fate), but he's one more big movie away from being that guy. His latest will not likely be that vehicle, but it gives him some more street cred, and what serious actor doesn't want that?

Half Nelson concerns teacher Dan Dunne (Gosling) who teaches inner city junior high Brooklyn kids history. He has a unique perspective of history, not really paying attention to the school's curriculum, trying to get his all-black classroom to think about things like "opposites," like black and white, struggle and peace, etc., in the study of change over time. He also coaches the girls' basketball team, and his student/athlete Drey (Shareeka Epps) becomes his friend after she catches him in the girls' bathroom smoking crack after an open house. Drey has a tough situation at home, her mother (Karen Chilton) is a cop, the sole provider due to a deadbeat dad, and her brother is in jail for selling drugs for drug maven Frank (another up-and-coming star, Anthony Mackie).

The opposing forces the film works hard to identify pays off as Drey finds herself between the well-meaning but messed-up Dan and the bad influence with money Frank. However, the movie is painfully slow at times--taking long breaks to show Dan in his downward spiral with drugs and women, the offshoot being loneliness--which is why his unusual friendship with Drey is such a special thing, one that provides the movie with its kick and its central conflict.

Gosling once again is great--this isn't the mesmerizing intensity of The Believer, but it deserves its place in what is likely to be a growing resume of great performances. He's funny and charismatic one minute, then awfully weak (and even sometimes funny in those moments) the next. Also of note is Epps, a tremendous debut (although Fleck and Boden apparently made this as a short called Gowanus, Brooklyn back in 2004 and used her and Chilton as the same characters). And although I spent the beginning of this review touting Gosling, I'd keep an eye on Anthony Mackie's breakout status as well. He could easily be a Denzel Washington or decade-ago Samuel Jackson in the future.

Overall, the movie is above-average. The appeal of this is seeing the performances, and they don't disappoint.


At 8/14/2006 10:15:00 AM, Blogger Jonathan said...

I really want to see this movie, an I agree with you on Gosling. He's got a movie coming out this fall, I believe, called "Fracture" with Anthony Hopkins. Sounds like a standard cat and mouse between cop and killer kind of thing, but might make the money that really puts him out there. Here's hoping.


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