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Half Nelson

April 24, 2016

Half Nelson (2006)
Director: Ryan Fleck
Actors: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie

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Synopsis: Drey (Shareeka Epps), a young teenager, finds herself in the middle of a subtle power struggle between her inspiring but drug-addled teacher, Dan (Ryan Gosling), and her upwardly mobile but drug-dealing ‘friend’, Frank (Anthony Mackie).

Review: This film is exemplar of the burgeoning Sundance/’indie’ genre: filmmakers increasingly well versed in almost a slightly twee naturalistic, ‘street level’ aesthetic that actually masquerades relatively conventional and prototypical dramas.

Here you have a classic ‘ironic’ hook: a young Black teen – suffering mild neglect due to an absent father and an overworked mother – having to choose between two polar role models (one is an inspirational teacher who happens to have a destructive drug habit; the other is a family friend involved in the drug trade but who otherwise is ‘clean’ and reasonably affluent. Incidentally, the teacher is white, the drug dealer is black, and the film seeks plenty of mileage out of this black/white, dialectical construct.) The film almost comes across as simply a device through which this dichotomy can be outed in two seminal, ‘clever’ set pieces: one, when the girl tends to her ‘tripping’ teacher in an early locker room scene; and two, when the girl starts running drugs for Frank near the end of the film, even dropping off some cocaine at a salubrious motel orgy, only to find her teacher is there – partaking in it.

That’s not to damn the film by pointing out its schematism, it just seems prevalent to recognise that the work is much more calibrated than its untainted veneer might initially suggest. The more interesting aspects of the film come in its less pre-determined margins. Maybe the drama is highly strategised but the acting is real and genuine; Fleck’s camera gaining a lot of from simply hugging the very watchful and expressive face of young Shareeka Epps as she gracefully demonstrates the slow maturation of her character as she begins to process the complexities of the adult world around her. The film also nicely taps into an old adage from teaching that there will always be one student who latches on to what you have to offer; and it is Drey’s slow immersion in the life of her teacher, Dan, that offers both of them the best chance of breaking free from the shackles of neglect and drug dependency respectively. (April 2016)

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