Ryan Fleck. US. 2006. 107 mins
The tired cliches of the inspirational teacher/pupil relationship are successfully turned on their head in Half Nelson. This is not the kind of formula crowd-pleaser that invites you to applaud the triumph of the underdog, instead it offers a haunting snapshot of the unlikely friendship that grows between two wary, complex individuals.
Exceptional performances from Ryan Gosling and a quietly impressive Shareeka Epps lend this a raw integrity that should commend it to admirers of American independent cinema.
Gosling's Best Actor Oscar nomination and potential profile-raising role in David Fincher's imminent Zodiac will ensure solid returns and the grainy, 1970s-style aesthetic could also broaden the appeal to an older demographic.
Gosling has been flirting with stardom since his eyecatching performance in The Believer (2000) but Half Nelson finally provides him with the chance to claim a place as one of the most compelling screen actors of his generation.
There is the edgy charisma of a young Sean Penn in his work here as unconventional Brooklyn history teacher Danny Dunn.
The kind of cool character who seems more like an older brother than a teacher, Dunn does nothing by the book. Teaching may even be his salvation as it is the one constant in a life marked by his fondness for chemically-induced oblivion.
He convinces himself that his habit is under control but one night 13-year-old pupil Dre (Epps) catches him taking drugs in the school changing rooms. It is the beginning of a seemingly inappropriate but touching friendship that unfolds as Danny's self-destructive impulses intensify and Dre is confronted by her own moral dilemmas.
Director Ryan Fleck adopts an aesthetic that combines elements of the Dogme movement and the cinema of John Cassavetes. He favours the intimacy of extreme close-ups and handheld camera work, reflecting the altered state of Danny's consciousness in woozy, blurred images.
The emphasis on characterisation, mood and relationships further underlines the affinity with American cinema from the Raging Bulls, Easy Rider age. Thirty years
ago, it might have been Pacino or De Niro who would have taken centre stage.
Fleck doesn't judge his characters or sensationalise their actions and his approach is reflected in the performances. Gosling lends a battered charm to his character and brings out all the pathos of an intelligent, compassionate individual drifting between self-control and abandon, commitment and regret.
Shareeka Epps is equally strong as a teenager who has already raised her guard against the world. Her manner is that of a girl wise beyond her years. Her eyes reflect a fierce pride and independence but she also reveals Dre's need for friendship and some kind of soulmate.
They are both allowed to develop into multi-layered individuals and the film's understated ending is entirely in keeping with a project determined to avoid the obvious.
The film is peppered with direct-to-camera pronouncements from the pupil's as they cite key events from recent American history that could be considered defining moments in the affairs of the nation. The suggestion implicit in those scenes is that there is just cause for a liberal leaning intellectual like Danny to prefer to chemical oblivion to the realities of contemporary America.
Hunting Lane Films
Paul S Mezey