Friday, August 11, 2006

Half Nelson - Movie Review

Half Nelson 2006

Again with the Sundance hits! And with each release, our respect for that famous Independent Film Festival dwindles. Case in point, “Half Nelson” starring cutie-Emo-angst-ridden Ryan Gosling and featuring a stunning turn by newcomer Shareeka Epps. Both of them struggle valiantly with a half written script and a director that apparently believes life should be viewed through an earthquake lens.

Half Nelson” concerns the tale of Dan, a middle school history teacher by day and a crack addict by night. His inability to juggle his daily responsibilities, which include coaching the girls basketball team, with his lonely and desperate need for a little crack infused respite form the backbone of a film that hopes to be a character examination of two lonely souls reaching for something to anchor their drifting lives. It fails. But thankfully does not sink completely due to the lead performances.

Ryan Gosling, of the graduating Mousketeer class of wannabe pop stars has turned into quite the respectable and fuckable young actor. His pull out the stops performance as a Neo-Nazi in HBO’s “The Believer” turned many heads and inspired award buzz. His underrated performance in the much underrated thriller “Murder by Numbers” as one of two teenage killers proved the boy had acting chops to spare. And with his leading man turn as the hunky loner in the drippy “The Notebook”, he insured his box office potential as a star presence. We wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors, which is why we regret his more mannered moments in this vastly uneven flick.

As one of his student athletes, the young Shareeka Epps emerges as a very strong screen presence. Her on screen charisma and powerful focus are far beyond her tender years. She is not only a vibrant young actress; she is potentially a very notable actress whose future performances we await with glee. For every overwrought scene, and tasteless camera set up she emerges victorious with her no-nonsense demeanor and intensity. We believe in her character through her sheer force of will. A strength that is sorely lacking behind the camera.

Half Nelson” suffers greatly from the miserable, overused, and completely distracting “Hand Held Camera” technique of filmmaking that brands the director as not only a neophyte, but an unimaginative one at that. The film begins quietly with a classroom scene that resembles the viewpoint of an ice cube in a martini shaker. We were so distracted by the herky jerky camera style that we almost threw up our lunch (Which ironically, consisted of three olives from our midday martini.) attempting to focus on the characters and the situation. It didn’t help matters that the improvisatory style of dialogue was not only trite and repetitive – it failed completely to inspire interest.

For this we must blame the filmmakers. Director Ryan Fleck, who co-penned the script with Anna Boden wants desperately to say something about the underprivileged, but what exactly that is we fail to understand. A white teacher addicted to crack, instructing history to his black students who live in drug infested neighborhoods isn’t exactly the most subtle message or situation. When the inevitable confrontation between cultures occurs, it peters out swiftly due to the complete lack of a point of view.

We fail to empathize or sympathize with Ryan’s character, which we feel is a mistake. This film wants us to feel pity for a man who has tried and failed to pick up his life and is merely subsisting in a day to day crack haze with rare moments of clarity. But if the character lacks motivation to be anything but a drip, why should we be interested? His own attraction to his young student is based more on an uncomfortable incident that occurs after a ball game.

The young Drey happens to linger too long in the seemingly abandoned locker room and stumbles upon her coach and teacher, Dan stoned out of his mind in one of the bathroom stalls. This scene which is one of the turning points in the film is the only solid piece of work due completely to the performances. And here is where we lost it completely with the directorial style. For while the camera’s waiving and blurry imagery might have worked as a visual metaphor for the drugs’ influence on Dan, the mere fact that the entire film was filmed in the same manner completely negates the intended power of the scene.

Thankfully, the powerful exchanged glances between Drey and Dan as they lock eyes in this horrid moment of discovery almost compensate for the direction. Ryan Gosling is at his best here when he allows the fear and shame of his character to blaze through the muddled scenario. Shareeka Epps ability to project her fears and doubts matches him scene for awkward scene.

We couldn’t help imagine how powerful the film might have been under the assured hand of a talented director. For surely, one with control and taste would have been able to build a storyline out of the messy vignettes found in the script. Scene after scene, the film dribbles past any honest emotion and falls back onto pained expressions and half uttered truths, revealing absolutely nothing about its two main characters.

Which is an utter shame with two charismatic and talented actors such as Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps under contract. By the time Awards season begins to rear its greedy head, we will not be surprised at all to find both of these thespians mentioned more than once. Unfortunately, you will have to sit through this miserable little flick to actually enjoy their fleeting moments of brilliance. Bless you all!

Directed by Ryan Fleck
Written by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck

Ryan Gosling as Dan
Shareeka Epps as Drey
Anthony Mackie as Frank
Tina Holmes as Rachel
Deborah Rush as Jo
Jay O. Sanders as Russ

Cinematography by Andrij Parekh
Film Editing by Anna Boden
Original Music by Broken-Social-Scene
Costume Design by Erin Benach
Production Design by Beth Mickle
Art Direction by Inbal Weinberg


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