Filmed before Ryan Gosling was a mega-star, half a decade before Drive, Half Nelson tells the story of an inspiring high school teacher, who uses his controversial methods to motivate his inner-city teenage class. Whilst trying to protect the future of one specific student, Dan Dunne (Gosling) must also battle his dangerous drug addiction; an urban Dead Poet’s Society, if you will. The film’s ultimate message is about learning from the mistakes of others and letting others help you when you are unable to help yourself. Fleck brilliantly addresses loss, love, responsibility and the crippling effects and isolation caused by addiction.
Fleck’s direction, like Gosling’s performance, is subtle; brilliantly subtle. The story unfolds at a relaxed, and very comfortable, pace and he allows his audience to make up their own minds about these characters and their situations. The only work by Ryan Fleck that I had seen before this film was Sugar. Made two years after Half Nelson, Sugar deals with the isolation of language and culture. I was thoroughly impressed by Sugar, the story of a lonely Dominican baseball player who is trying to adapt to life in America. Fleck has an incredible ability to give an audience an impression or idea without cramming his thoughts and messages down your throat. Half Nelson’s splendour is heightened even more by the breathtaking performance from a very young Shareeka Epps. Epps plays student Drey, the only member of the class that discovers her teacher’s dark secret and helps him to come to terms with it. Her delivery is spot on. Her facial expressions are so complex that I found myself seeing her character clearly react, assess and deal with certain situations.
Half Nelson is a perfect example of how crucial story, script and character are to any film. They form the roots and structure of any movie. Sometimes special effects and huge budgets allow film-makers to paste over or disguise their weak work and leave them appearing shiny. Half Nelson is a sturdy log cabin; no gimics or glossy finish, just an elegant cast, a story full of heart, constructed brilliantly by an insightful director. Half Nelson is a sturdy piece of work that, even five years later, does not crumble.
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