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flick pick | Half Nelson 2006
Directed by: Ryan Fleck
Written by: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps
Language: English
Look for it at the video store under: drama
Watch it when you're in the mood for
something: serious
The critic says: / 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor (watchability): /5 

Plot synopsis At the inner-city public middle school where he teaches history and coaches girls’ basketball, Dan Dunne is that rare teacher who the kids genuinely respect as cool. Drawing on unconventional techniques – much to the annoyance of his principal, who’d rather he stick to the approved curriculum – Dan inspires his student to think about and understand the events of the past, instead of merely memorizing names and dates. History, he tells them, is really about the clash between two opposite forces. As it turns out, this opposition is something that’s waging war in Dan’s own life as well. As talented and engaged as he is in his classroom, Dan’s a complete mess in his personal life, which hasn’t turned out at all like he imagined it would back when he was an idealistic leftist college student hell-bent on making the world a better place. Instead, he’s found himself living alone in a filthy hovel of an apartment, and diligently nursing a serious crack addiction. It’s all he can do to muster up enough energy to drop in the Visine, and wander back into school each weekday morning. Still, school is the only place he seems to feel even close to alive. Sadly, his two worlds don’t always stay separate. After a girls’ basketball game one afternoon, he makes the bad decision to light up the ol’ crack pipe in what he thinks is an empty locker room. Unfortunately, one of his students, Drey, is actually still around; she finds her favorite teacher huddled up on the toilet seat, unable to stand because he’s so wasted. Drey, however, understands Dan’s frustrations with being caught between ideals and the urge to take whatever route seems simplest to make life’s difficulties go away; her loving single mom works so hard to support the family that Drey never sees her, her older brother is serving time for drug dealing, and the local drug kingpin for whom the brother took the fall has now taken it upon himself to act as sketchy father figure to Drey. So instead of reporting her teacher, she tries to help him up off the floor. From this shared secret, a strange friendship begins.

Review The basic plot of Half Nelson reads a little like the foundation for one of those feel-good dramas about good teachers with screwed-up personal issues who inspire their formerly apathetic students, then find their own lives transformed in the process – you know, the sort of movie that might have starred Robin Williams back in the 90s. Which is to say that in different hands, this movie might have easily ended up being mawkish and hackneyed. But amazingly enough, writer-director Ryan Fleck and his co-writer Anna Boden offer a subtler, grittier take on the story that makes it feel fresh and new. In fact, the plot isn’t the main thing at all: taking a small, intimate approach, the film focuses on getting us into the heads of its main characters. As such, it’s the two leading actors that really make the movie so compelling to watch. Ryan Gosling, as Dan, was nominated for an Oscar at the most recent awards, and no doubt, this is star-making, standout work. Gosling imbues Dan with equal parts charisma and heartbreaking patheticness; he’s achingly believable in this naturalistic, un-self-conscious performance. His young co-star Shareeka Epps, meanwhile, is one of those unsettling youngsters whose intelligence and poise make her seem wise beyond her years. She’s wonderful, able to project so much thought and emotion with just a shift of an eyebrow and a stare, and plays off Gosling perfectly. Focusing on the unconventional and occasionally borderline-inappropriate friendship between Gosling’s and Epps’ characters, Half Nelson offers no neat answers or too-pat resolutions – and frankly, that’s a good thing, as it challenges you instead to think about the questions it raises regarding race, addiction, family, friendship, idealism and more. —reviewed by Yee-Fan Sun

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