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HALF NELSON

Director: RYAN FLECK

U.S.A.| 2006. COLOUR. DOLBY DIGITAL STEREO. 106 MIN.


Films about inspirational teachers who make a difference to their pupils’ lives are two-a-penny. Witness the recent ‘Freedom Writers’ starring Hilary Swank. By contrast, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s debut feature ‘Hal Nelson’ is more complex and troubling.

It examines the unlikely friendship between a disillusioned junior high school teacher, Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), and his troubled 13-year-old student, Drey (Shareeka Epps). Their first private meeting is not an auspicious one: basketball team member Drey discovers Dan smoking a crack pipe in the girls’ changing room. Although he is a charismatic, popular history teacher, Dan’s liberal idealism has taken a battering and his personal life is a mess. Shareeka, meanwhile, is torn between the escape promised by education and the chance to make easy money as a runner for flashy local drug dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie).

Written and acted with a subtlety that raises it above the usual Indie movie sincerity, ‘Half Nelson’ never belabours its points, or lingers in a didactic way over the historical, political and social issues it obliquely raises. The personal and psychological conflicts experienced by the self-destructive Dan and the maturing but under-confident Drey are stitched into the emotional fabric of the loosely-woven script. Explaining his drug habit to Drey, Dan says blithely: ‘One thing doesn’t make a man.’ In a Hollywood film this would be a cosy homily; here it is greeted with quietly derisive laughter by Drey, who is smart enough to know a self-deceiving platitude when she hears one. Ryan Gosling was Oscar nominated for his performance, but his talented co-stars match him scene-for-scene.—Nigel Floyd.

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