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With: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Karen Chilton, Nathan Corbett, Monique Churnen, Tina Holmes, Collins Pennie
Written by: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
Directed by: Ryan Fleck
MPAA Rating: R for drug content throughout, language and some sexuality
Running Time: 106
Date: 01/23/2006

Half Nelson (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Practicing What We Teach

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson looks as if it's going to bed down with half-a-dozen soft Hollywood mainstays, from the inspirational teacher story (Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, etc.) to the May-December, Lolita love story as well as tough neighborhood drug stories and neglectful, overworked parents stories. Miraculously, Fleck's film, co-written by Anna Boden and expanded from the short Gowanus, Brooklyn, deftly sidesteps each and every conventional landmine.

Ryan Gosling (The Believer, The Notebook) stars as Dan Dunne, an inner-city junior high school history teacher. Dan tries to teach his kids about a history loaded with rebels and activists, rather than the boring version written by the "winners." At the same time, Dan feeds his escalating drug addiction, staying out late and showing up bleary in class. After an evening basketball game he sneaks into the toilet and lights up, only to be caught by one of his students, Drey (Shakira Epps).

It's a loaded situation that could have gone into a hundred half-formed plot threads, but instead Dan and Drey merely become confidants. Drey's father is largely absent, and her mother is forever pulling double shifts, so Dan is the closest thing she has to a role model. Not to mention that Drey is all-too familiar with drugs (her older brother is in jail, presumably for that reason); they don't particularly spook or offend her.

Fleck and Boden stage Dan and Drey's conversations with a jazzy rhythm, part spontaneous, part give-and-take. Dan keeps a teacher-like distance, trying to impart as much wisdom as he can in answer to her questions. He's fallen in stature, but also gained, given that they've become closer friends.

The film also gives both Drey and Dan their own breathing time apart from one another. We meet Dan's parents, former hippies who drink too much wine, and Drey begins to attract the attention of a charming neighborhood drug dealer, Frank (Anthony Mackie), retrieving her stolen bicycle and buying her ice cream. It's this relationship that sets off alarm bells for Dan, and the amazing confrontation between the two men winds up turning back upon Dan.

Essentially a buddy movie but one in which the buddies sacrifice genuine parts of themselves, Half Nelson is the kind of movie that Good Will Hunting could have been. It prizes intelligence over likeability, ambiguity over manipulation. Such a film ought not to be such a rare surprise.

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