It isn't hard to get to grips with this impressive debut
By MICHAEL JOYCE Half Nelson (15) Directed by Ryan Fleck. Staring Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Gabriela Curnen, 107 mins Three star rating A storming lead performance, a story of a history teacher in a tough Brooklyn school who ha
By MICHAEL JOYCE
Half Nelson (15)
Directed by Ryan Fleck. Staring Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Gabriela Curnen, 107 mins
Three star rating
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A storming lead performance, a story of a history teacher in a tough Brooklyn school who has a serious crack habit, a title that is a wrestling hold - everything about Half Nelson indicates thrusting melodrama.
Instead, the debut feature of writer/ director/ producer team Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden is an impressively quiet, thoughtful affair although some viewers, frustrated by its gentle approach, may dismiss it as half-baked.
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Inevitably, Half Nelson is going to be viewed as Ryan Gosling's Oscar-nominated performance with accompanying movie. Gosling made his mark playing a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer five years ago but has slipped by largely unnoticed ever since. His performance as teacher Dan Dunne is a triumph precisely because it isn't the kind of bellicose tour de force the Oscar nomination leads you to expect.
Gosling shows signs of being someone whose approach to acting is worked out from scratch. He's not self-consciously original but neither is he prepared to just follow the strutting, fridge door slamming template for the troubled young male lead that has been dutifully passed down the generations since Brando and Dean. It's significant perhaps that when his character does lash out in frustration and hits a wall it happens off screen. All we see is him nursing a swollen hand afterwards.
Dunne is struggling to hold his life together, inspired by a desire to try to steer one of his pupils Trey (Epps) away from the influence of drug dealer Frank (Mackie). Hungover and often asleep at the front of the class, he's hardly an inspirational figure like Hilary Swank two months ago in Freedom Writers. But his kids are at least semi-engaged by his lengthy discourses on historical dialecticism.
Epps and Mackie offer top-notch support. It must be dispiriting for a black actor to get offered yet another drug dealer role but Mackie's Frank is a long way from the cliché, presented as just an ordinary guy trying to get by. Young Epps plays Trey like someone whose face got stuck in a blank scowl after the wind changed direction. But her inexpressiveness perfectly captures the sense of a closed off adolescent trying to disguise her uncertainties.
History teaches us to beware the movie bearing a single acting nomination for they are often empty showcases. But although it is frustratingly tentative at times, too self-conscious about not wanting to just be another addiction movie, Half Nelson is a real film that deals honestly
with its characters as well as addressing larger issues about
the absence of idealism.