[box cover]

Half Nelson

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is one of those Idealistic Teachers Who Care that often turn up as the subjects of heart-warming Oscar-bait movies. He wants his eighth-grade students to succeed against all odds, and he's passionate about teaching these inner-city kids the finer points of the civil rights movement and dialectics — the theory that everything is made up of opposites, and that cyclical changes lead to important turning points in both history and in people's lives. But unlike the squeaky-clean heroes of Stand and Deliver and Freedom Writers, Dan's personal life is a mess, and his own turning point comes when one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), discovers him strung out on crack on the floor of the school bathroom. The two form a bond based on this shared secret, and Dan becomes concerned about Drey's home life — her older brother is in prison for refusing to rat out the drug dealer he works for, Frank (Anthony Mackie), who in turn gives Drey a job packaging his goods. Dan wants to keep Drey away from Frank, but as he's hardly in a place to serve as a role model — Frank's been his dealer, too. Half Nelson (2006) is a refreshingly nuanced character piece, particularly for an idealistic-white-teacher-in-a-rough-black-school picture, and Gosling is excellent. Known mostly as the Jewish skinhead in The Believer and as the hunky love interest in The Notebook, Gosling's one of those supremely talented actors who's managed to fly under the radar until now. Epps, as 13-year-old Drey, is an amazing find, carrying the blank-eyed armor of a street kid and then slowly allowing her intelligence and sensitivity to come through as Dan gains her trust. The film itself is a little flimsy and often defies logic — a male teacher spending so much time with a female student would raise an alarm, even at a school where nobody seems to care about much — but the performances by Gosling and Epps are wonderful, grounded in a well-crafted script by director Ryan Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden that eschews any obvious good guy/bad guy simplifications. The story's ultimate message is bleak, intimating that devoting one's life to ideals and social change inevitably results in self-destruction, but as a character study it's absolutely brilliant. ThinkFilm/Sony's DVD release of Half Nelson offers an excellent anamorphic transfer (1.78:1), which has an often-grainy, pseudo-documentary look. The DD 5.1 audio (English, with English or Spanish subtitles) is very good as well, and the music by Broken Social Scene is excellent — atmospheric and subtle. Extras include a commentary track by Fleck and Boden, in which they discuss how the project morphed from short subject to feature, and they offer great, scene-specific remarks on lighting, improvisation, and the picture's thematic concepts. Also on hand are seven deleted and extended scenes, a goofy outtake reel (7 min.), and a video for Rhymefest's "Wanted." Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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