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HALF NELSON

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie
Director: Ryan Fleck
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: Sony Home Entertainment
Features: See Review
Length: 107 Minutes
Release Date: February 13, 2007

ďI cleaned upÖfor the most part. I do it now to get by, but I can handle it.Ē

Film ***1/2

Among the independent films released in 2006, one that will come to mind as one of the strongest will be Half Nelson. Itís a film with a strong dose of edge to it. It also happens to be one of the rawest character studies Iíve ever seen in a film.

The film received a lot of noteworthy acclaim for the performance of Ryan Gosling, and let it be said that Gosling has made his mark with this film as one of the best actors of our generation. His Oscar nomination is extremely well deserved, and I for one would very much be in favor of him walking away with the Best Actor awards. Itís that amazing of a screen performance.

Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a Brooklyn high school history teacher who is quite charismatic when it comes to teaching the importance of the subject to his students. He is also coach of the girlís basketball team. Dan also has a special bond with a student of his named Drey (Shareeka Epps).

But Dan has many personal demons that he has trouble keeping at bay. The main demon of which is an addiction to crack cocaine. One day after a basketball game, he sneaks into an empty girlís bathroom to get a quick fix. Moments later, itís Drey who discovers her teacher getting high in the bathroom stall, much to her disappointment.

Amazingly enough, Dreyís discovery leads to an even stronger bond between the two. Neither one really knows how to handle the aftermath. But Drey fully intends to not let the situation leak, now matter how bad the teacherís drug induced mannerisms may reveal themselves in the future.

Dan has a problem, knows it, but admits that he can maintain the habit and still get by. His habit was a lot worse in the past, but he knows how to handle it now, or so he claims. When not teaching, Dan spends most of his nights alone in his apartment or out at night clubs mingling with other drug addicts.

As for Drey, though she is one of Danís best students, the lure of selling drugs in her rough neighborhood seems destined to grasp her. Her brother is currently serving time in prison. Though the reason for the imprisonment is never revealed, itís easy to assume that it was drug related. The main reason being that her brotherís business partner, Frank (Anthony Mackie), is the neighborhoods top dope peddler and looks to put Drey under his wing.

Dan sees Drey hanging around the imposing Frank and he immediately sees him as a threat. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is when Dan, a base head, tries his best to keep Drey out of the clutches of the very thing thatís damaging him. The situation doesnít get any better when Dan confronts Frank about the issue, and Frank turns out to be very smart in the sense that he can tell just by looking at him that Dan doesnít have much credibility as a so-called mentor.

The acting in Half Nelson is as authentic and outstanding as it gets. And it doesnít just end with Mr. Goslingís astonishing performance. Shareeka Epps delivers one of the most astounding acting debuts I have ever seen, made even more riveting once I realized that Ms. Epps had no previous acting experience. She delivers a smart and complex character in Drey. And Anthony Mackie, who has turned in great supporting turns in films such as Million Dollar Baby and We Are Marshall, is equally terrific as the street smart Frank.

But Half Nelson is Ryan Goslingís film every step of the way. Iíve known for a while that Gosling is a strong actor. Heís known to the masses as the romantic lead in The Notebook, but itís his work in largely unseen fare as Stay, The United States of Leland and The Believer that really illustrated the level of range he has as an actor. Gosling, in my opinion, will go on to be the next Sean Penn.

Half Nelson is not a message movie and doesnít offer answers to the characterís dilemmas. It just presents them in an uncompromising and truly raw form. And for that, the film achieves a great level of authenticity. If you want to be thoroughly mesmerized by some truly fine acting, then this film deserves your attention.

Video ***1/2

Sonyís anamorphic treatment of this film is quite exceptional. The film is shot in a way that clearly indicates the qualities of an indie, and yet the overall picture quality boasts many a clear and crisp image and grand color appearance. Nice job all around!

Audio ***

The 5.1 mix is effective in a surprising way, given that the film is strictly dialogue oriented. Several settings provide elements of terrific background noise, and the soundtrack provided by the group Broken Social Scene provide the presentationís best sound moments.

Features **1/2

Included on the disc is a filmmaker commentary with writer/director Ryan Fleck and co-writer, producer and editor Anna Boden, which is very informative. Also featured are Outtakes, Deleted & Extended Scenes, a music video for the song ďWantedĒ by Rhymefest and several bonus previews for additional Sony releases.

Summary:

Half Nelson is a fully realized character study that doesnít compromise or hold back at any point. Whatís more, the acting is incredible on all accounts. Just in time for the Oscars, the timing is perfect for you to witness Ryan Goslingís flawless nominated performance. Who knows, he may just walk away with the top prize!

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