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Half Nelson: An Overlooked Indie Gem
By Bernie Sauer
Mr. Dunne is the middle school teacher every student wants: He’s sharp, funny, sports a cool, unshaved mug, and coaches basketball on the side. By day, he brings out the best in his students as they discuss politics and systemic injustice. By night, however, we see a different Mr. Dunne – one who trolls the nightclubs, snorts cocaine, and slides deeper into a crack addiction.
Talk about a black and white movie.
It is after a basketball game that Dunne is found semiconscious, clutching a crack pipe in a locker room stall. He is discovered by 13-year-old Drey (Shareeka Epps), who has grown up too fast, dealing with a deadbeat dad, workaholic mom, and an older brother serving jail time. Holding close her street smarts and faith in her teacher, she gives him a cup of water, helps him up, and begins a tentative friendship in the most remarkable and overlooked film of 2006.
This is a tough one to watch, and it isn’t one of those inspirational teacher/mentor movies either. Instead, it’s a character study of two people, both flawed and frustrated, who have at least one thing to hope for – one another.
Half Nelson doesn’t walk down the predictable path of dire revelations and Hollywood-laced redemptions as most films about drug addiction do. Rather, director and co-writer Ryan Fleck rejects the obvious and captures a plainspoken sympathy for Mr. Dunne and observes without interfering. The wordless scenes complemented by the hauntingly beautiful music of Broken Social Scene remind the viewer that observation is more important than arbitration.
Where the film shines is in Ryan Gosling’s performance as Mr. Dunne. Working without pretense or exaggeration, he makes Dunne charming yet vulnerable, casual yet dominating. Gosling is so uncomfortably real that it would be our mistake to judge him and not embrace him. His only flaw is that he is imperfect. The best part: Even if it is subtle, there is hope in the end, and it starts with another small glass of water.
Half Nelson has “independent film” written all over it because of its unappetizing subject matter and sparse exposure, but these are the components that make it so special. Being a movie critic isn’t about panning big, Hollywood films; it’s about informing moviegoers about other cinematic gems among the mainstream banalities. Take my word for it: Watch this movie and tell me what you think.
Half Nelson ****1/2 out of *****
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