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Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 10.19.06


The Disapppearing Artist

A convincing portrait of addiction


HALF NELSON: Directed by Ryan Fleck. Written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Cinematography, Andrij Parekh. Music, Broken Social Scene. Starring Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps and Anthony Mackie. THINKFilm, 2006. R. 106 minutes.

Half Nelson opens to a pulsing alarm clock, a sound that Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) can't seem to hear. It's the first of many such wake-up calls in Half-Nelson that go unnoticed or simply ignored.

Dan is a white teacher at an all-black school in an unnamed American city. Before you can say Dangerous Minds, however ("She Broke the Rules … And Changed Their Lives"), Half Nelson evolves into a work of great complexity. Dan isn't simply an emaciated hipster on a crusade to fill the hearts and minds of inner-city youth. His gentle disposition hides a passion that borders on arrogance. With a vaguely Nietzschean air of superiority, Dan rejects (on moral grounds, presumably) the school's curriculum for his own. He takes his students seriously and he takes Black history seriously. The other thing he takes seriously is freebasing cocaine.

Dan is like a poet in an opium den: He's a pale, frail and immensely tragic figure. He finds a fellow sufferer in Dre (Shareeka Epps), a wounded female student. Dre's father neglects her, her mother works too hard and her brother is in jail. When Dre stumbles upon Dan using drugs in the girls' locker room, she doesn't panic. It's just another grown-up letting her down. Dre's sense of weariness is a core strength of Half Nelson: You worry that her shoulders aren't big enough for the disappointment there even as you savor those little sparks of life that girls her age should generate. (I think the title, a reference to a one-arm move in wrestling, is an allusion to how life ties us up, but never completely pins us.)

Dan and Dre begin an unexpected friendship. Dre's awareness of secrets is almost preternatural, a quality that Frank (Anthony Mackie) prizes. Frank, the neighborhood drug dealer, should have gone to jail with Dre's brother, but her brother concealed Frank's identity. In return, Frank now acts as Dre's benefactor and surrogate father. Dan happens to be one of Frank's customers. Instead of saving himself, Dan tries to save Dre from Frank, but his interventions are clumsy, sad and inappropriate. Rebuffed by Dre, Dan's left with himself. For an addict, that's the worst place to be.

What follows is the slow disappearance of a once-promising young man, someone who aspired to be a writer and educator. Dan's school lectures, once so optimistic and insightful, begin to sound like the drug-fueled rants they are. There's a terrific scene of contrasting family dinners late in Half Nelson that illustrates Dan's conundrum: Dan sits bored while his family gulps red wine and talks politics, while Dre watches Frank cut cocaine for his clients. Dan can't escape his origins, nor can he remove Dre from the only family she has. For Dan, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree; for Dre, the apple is just waiting to be plucked.

This is the performance we've been waiting for from Gosling, who was anointed the Next Big Thing a few years ago. Gosling gives a subtle performance full of yearning and vulnerability that should lead to more visible roles in the future. Shareeka Epps makes her feature-film debut here, giving a confident portrayal of an extraordinary young girl. When student and pupil finally cross paths toward the end, neither one is where they expected to be. One has the presence of mind to reach out for the other. But it wouldn't be the first wake-up call that went unheeded in Half Nelson. This is a powerful, moving and bittersweet film about the unlikely friendships we form during adversity.  

Half Nelson opens Friday, Oct. 20 at the Bijou


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