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August 2006

Half Nelson

by Kam Williams

Half Nelson

Distributor: THINKFilm
Director: Ryan Fleck
Screenwriter: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Karen Chilton, Monique Curnen, Shareeka Epps, Tina Holmes, Collins Pennie, Deborah Rush, Jay O. Sanders, Sebastian Sozzi, Nicole Vicius, Tristan Wilds
Rated R for sex, expletives, and drug use.
Running time: 106 minutes


Inner-City Drama Chronicles Unlikely Bond between White Teacher and Black Student

Dan (Ryan Gosling) is a dedicated teacher and basketball coach at a dilapidated junior high located in a Brooklyn ghetto. One of his students, 13 year-old Drey (Shareeka Epps), is a latch-key kid who is at-risk because of the absence of parental supervision after school. Normally, Dan and Drey would have nothing to do with each other outside of the classroom, not only because of the age difference, but because he’s white and lives in the suburbs, while she’s black and stuck struggling with her single-mom in the ‘hood. However, Dan has a drug problem, being addicted to crack, and his student-teacher relationship with Drey is altered irreversibly the day she observes him getting high in the girls’ locker room. She chooses to keep his secret, and in return he takes a personal interest in her well-being, crossing an ethical line by secretly involving himself in her personal life after 3PM. For instance, he drives her home one day and despite his own addiction, warns her to keep her distance from Frank (Anthony Mackie), a dealer on her block who’d like to get the young girl hooked on narcotics.

Thus unfolds Half Nelson, an unlikely buddy drama directed by Ryan Fleck. The infuriating flaw of this deliberately-paced slice-of-life drama is that it is a tad too understated for its own good. While based on a plausible plot and well-executed by a capable cast, nothing much exciting ever happens in this contemplative mood piece.

So, by the time the closing credits roll on this headscratcher, don’t be surprised to be asking yourself, “Is that it?” A teenager befriends her teacher without anything kinky occurring or any dire consequences. Perhaps I’ve simply seen so many ghetto fabulous adventures filled with all manner of over-the-top displays of nudity, bling, murder, gunplay, sadism, overdosing, rape, expletives, ethnic slurs and major mayhem, that a story this sedate just doesn’t satisfy what I’ve come to expect of the genre.You gotta gimme something to sink my teeth into. The picture’s most passionate exchange went like this:

Dan: I’m your teacher, not your friend.
Drey: Asshole!
Dan: Bitch.

Yawn. Half Nelson? A half-hearted study in black and white which never dares to take enough risks to make it worth the watch.

Good (2 stars)