Half Nelson (2006)

Half Nelson (2006) – I remember I met a girl once who, a year or so after Pirates of the Caribbean, said she would see any movie that Johnny Depp was in. Actually I met a lot of girls like that. The Libertine came out shortly thereafter. I don’t think any of those girls saw that. (I haven’t seen it either, I just picked it because it illustrates my point, which I shall be getting to right about now.) A lot of actors divide their workload between the more commercial projects and the more artistically fulfilling ones, oftentimes with the expectation of lower box office returns. But when you have a star like Depp with that kind of drawing power, it’s a little frustrating that people don’t see his artsier stuff. (Though this year, the movie Transcendence proved that not everyone goes to see his studio stuff either.) Anyway, enough about Depp. He has absolutely nothing to do with this movie. Ryan Gosling does, and he has the same problem. Ryan Gosling is a damn fine actor. Most of his fans seem more preoccupied with his damn fine abs. This movie, Half Nelson, earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. (He lost to Forrest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland). Many of those who swoon over The Notebook, Crazy Stupid Love, or (groan) Gangster Squad have never even heard of this movie.

Dan Dunne (Gosling) is a history teacher at an inner-city middle school. But he’s a young, cool teacher. Screw the man’s curriculum, man! He prefers to teach dialectics, instead of the usual boring names and dates. He coaches the girls’ basketball team. His students seem to like him. He’s a fairly unconventional teacher… and also a drug addict. One day, one of his students catches him smoking crack in the locker room after a game. The student, Drey (Shareeka Epps), decides to keep Mr. Dunne’s secret. With her dad an absentee deadbeat and her older brother (Collins Pennie) in prison, Mr. Dunne is the best male role model Drey has. The only competition is Frank (Anthony Mackie), the drug dealer Drey’s brother worked for. He financially supports Drey’s family, and decides to try to help out by taking Drey on as a protégé. Dan wants to stop this as Drey is a student with great potential, but then he’s not really coming from a place of moral superiority where drugs are concerned…

This film is made by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who also made the films Sugar and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. It’s very low-key in tone, scored by the mellow sounds of Canadian music collective Broken Social Scene. The strength of this movie is in the acting. Gosling (as the Oscar nomination might suggest) is phenomenal. This is still the absolute best role I have seen him in. (Sorry, Notebook fans.) I still have not seen The Last King of Scotland, so I really don’t know how Gosling doesn’t have that damn Oscar. (The Academy’s bias against the young notwithstanding.) Shareeka Epps is also revelatory. She hasn’t done much in the way of movies I’ve heard of in the subsequent years. (She was cut out of Alien vs. Predator: Requiem which, given how that movie turned out, is probably for the best.) Anthony Mackie likewise manages to make Frank a personable guy and not just a menacing devil standing on Drey’s right shoulder. He’s a bad guy, that much is never in doubt, but he’s the kind of bad guy you could see people really warming up to. That’s exactly why he’s so dangerous. Half Nelson is an absolutely fascinating and moving character study. I would recommend anyone to see it. If you’re one of those girls who just LOVES Ryan Gosling you have to see this movie (and Blue Valentine… and Drive…) or else you DON’T love Ryan Gosling. You just love a set of abs.

One Response to “Half Nelson (2006)”
  1. kyle Hadley says:

    This film is incredible! Forrest Whitaker was not even the lead in Last King of Scotland. It bothered me greatly at that time because I still cared about awards at that time. Whitaker is on screen half the time as James Mcavoy in that film.

    As for Half Nelson, it is a movie completely driven by a trio of performances with Gosling as the stabilizing force. I love the Notebook as much as any straight white male, but knowing Gosling from The Believer (amazing if you have not seen it) I knew The Notebook barely touched on his talent level. Full Nelson was such a reminder of what he is capable of.

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