Thursday, January 8, 2009

Half Nelson

How Can One Empathize With An Addict Teacher Who Has An Inappropriate Teacher/Student Relationship? That is the question that this movie asks. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden provide us with a script that does exactly that. The writers somehow manage to create empathy between the audience and teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) in spite of his many short-comings. I think his character had a scary believability that causes one to challenge presuppositions regarding people in positions of authority. Dan Dunne is an odd character who is at times an aloof bastard and at other times a compassionate mentor. It is a delicate balancing act that ventures into a touchy realm. The deft writing provides us insight into addiction....the extent to which addiction has infiltrated our society and the depths to which it can drag you.

I missed Half Nelson when it was in the theaters in 2006. I enjoy Ryan Gosling, which was the biggest draw for me to see this film. I was not familiar with the subject matter of this film prior to watching it. The title suggested a film about wrestling (or if you are street savvy...dominant sex), but this film touches on neither subject. The film does deal with opposing forces which is the closest I can come to deciphering the intent of the title.

I was initially put off by the grainy film and background noise, which appear to have been intentionally constructed. The use of this format gives the film a documentary feel. The subtlety created by this approach works for this subject matter but might be considered to appear rough to some viewers. With the highly controlled environments that many films are created in these days, this film did not feel amateurish nor did the approach seem contrived. It was an interesting style that I got used to after a while.

The plot in Half Nelsonwas well developed. Although Dunne is easy to empathize with, his struggles do not make for easy resolution. The script delves into territory that raises questions about his judgment and ability to deal with his addiction in a way that is both believable and disturbing. The delicate balance employed by the writers captivates the audience. The interaction between Dunne and his female student Drey (Shareeka Epps) should create disbelief, but manages to cause us to confront our own assumptions about what is right and wrong as well as what can be believed. The characters have major flaws that make them human. Flawed characters that can engage an audience and evoke empathy are the product of strong writing. The dialogue mirrors the plot and character development with interesting exchanges between the characters that are unpredictable. The writing was exceptional.

An excellent script can fail without good casting. Half Nelsonwas spot on in selecting Ryan Gosling who seems to have a knack for this type of role. Epps was also an interesting choice for Drey's character. But what made the casting special was the chemistry between Gosling and Epps. At times it seemed to border on a forbidden love story and at other times it seemed to be a mentoring type relationship. Yet there were times that the relationship felt wholly inappropriate. It was a chemistry that sold every aspect of the story. Nathan Corbett gave a solid supporting effort as Drey's "family friend" Terrance. Corbett did not go for the gangsta' drug dealer look. He was another well developed character who was charming and interesting while simultaneously exploiting the thirteen year old Drey. A cast of characters who were asked to make us like them in spite of their obvious short-comings. This cast managed that task effortlessly.

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