Directed by:Ryan Fleck
Our understanding of the proper relationship which should exist between teacher and student has certainly evolved over the past half century or so, morphing from master/servant, (spare the rod, spoil the child) through mentor/acolyte (a mind is a terrible thing to waste) to something approaching open competition for control in the classroom, (i.e. Sean Penn’s standoff with his teacher in Fast Times at Ridgemont High over a pizza). In 1939, Robert Donat personified the kindly schoolmaster in Goodbye Mr. Chips; a mere 16 years later a young actor named Sidney Poitier had to battle a vicious thug for mastery of Glenn Ford’s students in Blackboard Jungle. In an age when the legitimacy of authority is so often challenged by our culture’s lust for personal autonomy, what’s the next logical step in the progression of America’s public schools, the educator as babysitter? In Half Nelson, the writer/director team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden reverse even that last iteration by examining the relationship between an Oakland middle school teacher/girl’s basketball coach, (Ryan Gosling) and Drey, (Shareeka Epps) a shrewdly observant 12 year old student/player. The winner of a handful of awards at regional film festivals earlier this year, this independently produced movie features a trio of sharply etched characters and a bracingly realized sense of life on the margins of black urban society, but the core of this highly touted film has the consistency of tapioca pudding due to its inability to make a convincing argument about the motivation and moral values of its central character. Mucho commendable style here, but precious little substance.
Dan Dunne, (Gosling) provides his working class students with some pungent commentary on the issues of race and class in America, urging them into an honest study of our country’s history and its relevance to marginalized young people about to enter adulthood. His lessons on civil rights might not earn an A in tutorial delivery, but no one could argue they lack content. He’s not bad on the court either, mixing sound basketball fundamentals with wry observations about the necessity of a sometimes brittle attitude on the hardwood, so what’s not to like? Unfortunately, Dan has issues…
There’s a strained relationship with Mom and Dad, (‘60’s radical wanna-bes) and a failed romance with his girlfriend who’s now sporting someone else’s engagement ring. Oh yes, there’s one more thing; Dan’s a practicing cokehead, snorting when he can, smoking spliffs when he can’t and paying the price in terms of washed-out appearance, chronic fatigue and a seemingly terminal case of post-tokeing sniffles. After practice one evening, Dan enjoys a potent joint in the privacy of the girl’s bathroom and Drey finds him nearly incoherent on the floor; the screenplay then devotes itself to an
examination of her desire to understand someone whose words in the classroom just don’t square with his behavior outside it. When she’s subsequently recruited as a runner by Frank, (Anthony Mackie) her neighborhood’s friendly pusher, Dan tries to persuade Drey that a life in the drug trade is a poor career choice; not surprisingly, she finds his advice difficult to take. Dan then confronts Frank, hoping to save Drey by removing her source of employment, but he only succeeds in finding himself a new supplier. Drey stays in school, puzzled by Dan’s addiction and susceptible to Frank’s enticements; Half Nelson resolves nothing, content only to deliver these three portraits, intertwined in an open-ended struggle for individual survival.
Gosling provides a thoroughly credible performance as Dan, a well-intentioned middle class quasi-intellectual whose capacity for self-absorption trumps his ability to see what he’s become - - it’s a tribute to the actor’s skills that he’s able to wring so much sympathy from the audience for a character with such a consistently narcissistic view of his own importance. As Drey, newcomer Epps manages to play off Gosling’s lead with an impressive array of subtle facial expressions which suggest that she’s not only more self-aware than her teacher, but more accepting of her own limitations, implying an incipient wisdom which makes her older than her years. But it’s Mackie who steals the picture; his seductive riffs on the inevitability of the drug trade given the conditions found in inner-city life and his apparent openness to a candid analysis of its implications mask a frightening capacity for manipulating others that’s simultaneously compelling and chilling. Just 27 years old, this graduate of Julliard has already appeared in 15 movies and television dramas, with another handful of performances already in the works, making his career well worth watching.
Fleck and Boden secured the financing for this, their first full-length feature film, by shooting a 19 minute version, (Gowanus Brooklyn) two years ago featuring Ms. Epps; when it won the short film award at Sundance, investors lined up to underwrite this 106-minute effort. Working in the Robert Altman tradition, (launching into the middle of scenes, requiring the audience to fill in connective pieces of the narrative and deliberately obscuring much of the dialogue behind the noise of city life) this creative couple, still in their mid-twenties, demonstrate more than enough talent to warrant future backers for whatever their next project might be. But they’d be well advised to anchor upcoming work with a point of view that permits the audience to understand what lies behind their characters’ behavior rather than just marvel at how lifelike Fleck and Boden can make them appear.
The verdict? Strong on style and technique - - but add more content, please.
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