Half Nelson Review

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a white school teacher in a mostly black neighbourhood of Brooklyn. At school he’s generally well liked by his students. But at night he’s found in bars and has acquired a drink and drug habit. One of his pupils is thirteen-year-old Drey (Shareeka Epps). Her mother is doing double shifts to make ends meet and her older brother is doing time for drug offences. Then one day she finds Dan semi-conscious in a toilet cubicle, having smoked crack. When her lift home doesn’t show up, Dan – once he’s come down from his high – stands in, and an unlikely friendship starts.

The story of an inspirational teacher is nothing new, offering a juicy and maybe Oscar-nominated lead role – think Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds to name but three. On the face of it, Half Nelson is nothing new, and indeed Ryan Gosling did earn himself an Oscar nod for his work here. However, filmmaking partners Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (both wrote, he directed, she produced and edited) do attempt to do something a little different. The grainy, hand-held pseudo-documentary style is very Noughties, though it’s actually Super 16mm rather than video. This does have the effect of de-emphasising the narrative, which may be a little disconcerting to someone over-used to the narrative beats of a Hollywood three-act script. It’s as if the camera (Andrij Parekh was the DP) is finding the drama as it goes along, rather than a sense that every shot is pre-planned. Also, Fleck and Boden’s script tends to avoid the clichés of the black-ghetto drama. In Dan Dunne, they have created a distinctly flawed individual. We aren’t told in a long dramatic monologue how he got that way (another cliché circumvented) but you certainly believe in him. That’s the message of this distinctly character-led film: no-one is perfect and some are far less so than others, but even damaged people can do some good.

Gosling deserved all the praise he received for this role, but Shareeka Epps (who was actually fifteen when this film was made) and Anthony Mackie (as local drug dealer Frank) are just as good. Most of the schoolchildren in the film were locals, most of whom had not acted before. The title is derived from the wrestling hold, a metaphor for an uncomfortable situation someone is unable to extricate themselves from.

Axiom’s DVD is a single dual-layered PAL disc encoded for all regions.

The transfer is in the intended ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced. Given that this film was shot in 16mm – and I suspect largely in natural light – it’s not the slickest-looking of movies, nor is it meant to be. Grain is noticeable and the colours are on the muted side, but there’s nothing here that I can’t believe isn’t how the film was intended to look in cinemas. (Apologies for the lack of a screengrab. Although the checkdisc supplied played with no difficulty on my main player and TV set, the DVD-ROM drive on my PC had problems with it.)

The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, though given the film’s dialogue-driven nature, it’s mostly front and centre with the surrounds occasionally used for music and some ambience. For a new film like this, you might expect a 5.1 soundtrack, though I doubt it will make a lot of difference. The dialogue is clear, which is the important thing. Unfortunately Axiom have not seen fit to provide subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, which is not good.

The extras begin with a commentary from Fleck and Boden, who clearly work together very closely as their rapport is obvious. This is a useful summary of how an independent film gets made nowadays. The script came first, but the resources to make a feature were not forthcoming. So the pair boiled the script down to twenty minutes and made a short on video, “Gowanus, Brooklyn”, which also featured a much younger-looking Shareeka Epps as Drey, who in this version is the central character. This short is also on the disc, in non-anamorphic 16:9, running 19:50. They then used this short as an aid to attracting finance for the feature.

Next up is ain interview with the filmmakers. This was carried out in London at the time of the cinema release by Tom Dawson. This item is divided into subject sections: it runs 17:49. Fleck and Boden also appear, introducing a film screening and answering questions afterwards, in an excerpt from The Fabulous Picture Show (7:54), from Al-Jazeera television. The rest of the extras are made up of outtakes (6:51), including an amusing prank played on Epps, deleted and extended scenes (6:53), a stills gallery and the trailer (2:26) This is the MPAA green-label (all-ages) trailer for this R-rated film, and explains the title up front (“for those times when you’re feeling kinda stuck”).

Ultimately, Half Nelson may seem a little too familiar, or on the other hand, too low-key and slow-burning and open-ended. But as a low-budget indie that avoids most of the clichés and sentimental traps in this film, and is a well-made and acted film in its own right, Half Nelson should be commended.

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