Friday, October 27, 2006

HALF NELSON - quiet brilliance

HALF NELSON is a movie that has the courage to turn those Hollywood conventions of an uplifting high-school-teacher-as-mentor story. In these movies an idealistic teacher - usually white - turns up in a violent inner city school usually populated by ethnic minorities. The teacher uses quirky teaching methods to get the kids' attention. One kid usually does really well; another does well but is held back by getting knocked up or an abusive parent; and the rest slide into a morass of happy, thankful sprites. Movies like that - all rose-tinted depictions of the under-privileged - make me sick.

Like I said, HALF NELSON is nothing like these movies. Writers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden do have an idealistic white teacher - played by Ryan Gosling. But he is as much in need of help and mentoring as the kids: he has a raging drug habit. He forms a friendship of sorts with a thirteen year-old student called Drey when she catches him after basketball practice smoking crack in the girls locker room. She nurses him and gets him home. So the friendship is not about him helping her out but about both of them helping each other. Despite or perhaps because of his habit, the teacher is able to caution Drey against becoming a dealer for a family friend. I also love that despite the vogue in recent films, the writers never let the relationship between the two of them become "inappropriate".

The movie is well-directed by Ryan Fleck. He gives it room to breathe - the pace is gentle (some might find it too slow) and slowly builds to a quite dazzling closing segment. HALF NELSON is also brilliantly acted by Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps - indeed, the movie is arguably an expansive two-hander between the two of them. They deserve all the plaudits they are receiving.

HALF NELSON was released in the US in August 2006 and played the Sundance and London Film Festivals.

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