Thursday, September 23, 2010

Strong Acting Helps "Half Nelson" Overcome Half-Ass Directing (Happy B'day, Anthony Mackie)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 38 (of 2007) by Leroy Douresseaux

Half Nelson (2006)
Running time: 107 minutes (1 hour, 47 minutes)
MPAA – R for drug content throughout, language, and some sexuality
DIRECTOR: Ryan Fleck
WRITERS: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
PRODUCERS: Anna Boden, Lynette Howell, Rosanne Korenberg, Alex Orlovsky, and Jamie Patricof
EDITOR: Anna Boden
2007 Academy Award nominee


Starring: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Curnen, Deborah Rush, and Jay O. Sanders

In the independent film drama, Half Nelson, an inner-city schoolteacher and one of his students form an unlikely friendship that just might help him pull it together and stop her from following her brother into prison.

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is anxious to help his students learn outside the parameters of what is accepted in public schools, but each day that he’s in front of his class, it is clear that his mind is elsewhere. Dunne is a frustrated novelist and a drug addict who knows he’s in trouble but won’t stop using illegal drugs. Drey (Shareeka Epps) lives in a small apartment with her divorced mom, and her father chooses to live outside of her life. Her brother is doing a stint in prison, apparently for his dealings with Frank (Anthony Mackie), the neighborhood drug dealer. Now, Frank is trying to recruit Drey into his service. As Dunne spirals downward, he is surprised to find Drey acting as his conscience, when he plans on being hers.

Co-writer/director Ryan Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden are so intent on not offering easy answers and pat resolutions in their film, Half Nelson, that they almost ruin it. They’ve made an underwritten, slice-of-life movie. Instead of giving Half Nelson a beginning, middle, and ending, they instead act as if they’re making a docu-drama and are presenting just the facts – thank you very much and can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) make judgments.

Luckily, at the heart of their film sit two outstanding acting performances. First, Ryan Gosling, who seems to be on the cusp of greatness (or is at least still a simmering “next big thing”), delivers a sharp and heartrending performance as a druggie teacher that is as harrowing as it is quiet and graceful. Gosling doesn’t glamorize drug addiction, nor does he play teacher Dan Dunne as some kind of trashy lowlife always dressed in filthy rags. Dunne is woefully in denial and, therefore, helpless against his addiction. We can feel sorry for him, while simultaneously being tired of his self-destructive ways.

Meanwhile, Shareeka Epps as the inner city, almost-lost girl Drey offers a stout and stoic face to the world. It’s as if Epps realizes that the only way that Drey survives her life of sorrow and loneliness is to keep a stiff upper lip, so Drey offers a facial expression that might make Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry blink. Still, Epps allows us to see underneath to the vulnerable girl who isn’t so sure that she isn’t destined to end up an incarcerated drug dealer like her brother.

Anthony Mackie, as the neighborhood drug kingpin, also offers Half Nelson a fine performance. Mackie’s Frank is a sly salesman who wears his dishonesty and predatory ways on his sleeve as if they were banners of personal pride. Mackie makes Frank dangerous without grandstanding or scene stealing, which is what most actors do when they play drug lords and dealers.

What Gosling, Epps, and Mackie offer is substance to Fleck and Boden’s faux and cheapie realism. They make Half Nelson a standout film when it could have been just another pretentious, underwritten independent drama.

7 of 10

2007 Academy Awards: 1 nomination for “Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role” (Ryan Gosling)

2007 Black Reel Awards: 2 nominations: “Best Breakthrough Performance” (Shareeka Epps) and “Best Supporting Actress” (Shareeka Epps)

Sunday, February 18, 2007


  1. You ought to view/read the video/print interviews of Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie & Ryan Gosling on writers/directors Ryan Fleck/Anna Boden’s influence on their performances and the film HALF NELSON. They thoroughly refute your analysis. I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Epps & Mr. Mackie @ MOMA’s New Directors, New Films (not sure this was the name) event and the Independent Spirit Awards in 2007; they spoke highly of Mr. Fleck & Ms. Boden. The award-winning film & director Fleck were almost universally acclaimed by critics (see their awards sections, metacritics & rottentomatoes).

    Informed people know the best actors can go only so far without good writers & directors. Fleck/Boden are known for finding non-actors like Epps and Algenis Perez Soto (SUGAR) and getting great performances from them. One just has to follow Epps’ & Soto’s careers since working with Fleck/Boden to see the worth of their skill & talent.
    Ryan Gosling is an extraordinary talent on the verge of greatness before HALF NELSON, but it was the screenplay written by Fleck/Boden & Fleck’s direction of that extraordinary talent that brought Gosling his Best Actor Oscar nomination. That was no accident – otherwise, why wasn’t he nominated before or since?

    Too bad you have only one view of how stories are told – movies, tv, novels & lives don’t always have tidy beginnings, middles, and endings neatly tied up in a bow. Nor are they always satisfying that way – they can be predictably dull.

  2. Thank you for reading.

    It doesn't matter who refutes my analysis. It's my analysis - my view of the film. I don't need the approval of this film's cast or creators. I don't need to copy or get approval from IMDb, Metacritics, or Rotten Tomatoes or award givers. They do them, and I do me.

    And I don't know how you decide what my view of how stories are told in movies and TV and novels and lives is from one review. Oh, but I guess that's YOUR analysis. You did you. I'll keep doing me.

    Best wishes.