Half Nelson (2006) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for pervasive drug use, language, and some sexuality
Running Time: 106 min.

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Karen Chilton, Tina Holmes, Collins Pennie
Director: Ryan Fleck
Screenplay: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Review published September 21, 2006

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden write and direct this naturalistic piece fleshed out from his award-winning previous short film, Gowanus, Brooklyn about white inner city school teacher (Gosling, Stay) with a drug habit which is discovered by one of his African-American students and the friendship they soon share.  Shareeka Epps reprises her role as the student, Drey, with such a fine performance, it's impossible to imagine someone doing a finer job.  In fact, all of the performances are so in tune with the natural flow of things that, along with the shaky, grainy camera work and very good ear for improvisational dialogue, it has a documentary feel about it that helps us buy into the characters and their plights in a way a glossy Hollywood drama could never do.

Half Nelson offers a refreshing change of pace from most modern dramas about serious issues, treating the characters as real-life human beings, with their own sets of problems and ways of coping that, while not exactly what we might choose to do for ourselves, never has us reviling some of the poor life decisions they make for themselves.  In fact, two of the protagonists of the film are a junkie and a drug dealer (Mackie, Freedomland), both of whom seem genuine and likeable, despite their external preoccupations, although both see each other as the wrong influence that Drey needs in her life at the tender age of 13.   That both are using the girl in their own subtle ways to feed their own vices only scratches the surface of their character complexities.

Developed in a slice-of-life fashion, Half Nelson neither poses any easy questions, nor provides any simple solutions.  In a way, it's a coming of age story about one perceptive young girl into the adult world around her, and of how easy it is for even the best, most idealistic of people to get swallowed up by the dismal world around them.  It's a society of people that seems unable to change, with school systems and communities still primarily segregated, despite the many civil rights advancements, and people that vote for presidents still believing the lies told to them by authorities despite evidence to the contrary.  It is also about the hypocrisy that is sometimes involved with being an adult, telling children about the importance of change and second chances, while continuously unable to affect any important changes in one's own life.  Appropriately, the title refers to a wrestling hold where one is rendered completely immobile.

Half Nelson is a sad piece, and yet there is a hopefulness about it, as we hope that young Drey can manage to make it to adulthood with some semblance of her wide-eyed innocence still intact, despite knowing that it has already been shattered forever.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo