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Half Nelson   (released 9/13/2006)
By Neil Norman

      A Half Nelson, by definition, is a wrestling hold where one arm is slipped under your opponent's arm and your hand is placed on the back of their neck. The hold partially immobilizes the opponent, but is easier to break than a Full Nelson, which is more incapacitating. Although there is no literal wrestling in this film, the title is an apt metaphor for immobilization or incapacitation. Many of the characters we meet are trapped in some form or another, but we see through the events of the film that escape is sometimes possible.

      Dan Dunne, played by up and coming star Ryan Gosling (The Notebook), is a young schoolteacher with a mission: He wants to make a difference for just one kid in his Brooklyn classroom. At the risk of sounding a bit clichéd, Half Nelson is more than just another white schoolteacher in the inner city classroom movie. Dunne teaches History and specializes in his theory of Dialectics, attempting to explain to his kids how change works. Unfortunately, Dunne is caught up in the winds of change himself. Calling bill collectors, failed relationships, pressures from his principal to teach more traditionally, and an ever increasing coke habit, all stand in his way of opening (at least) one student's eyes.

      Shareeka Epps plays Drey, a blow-pop munching, streetwise thirteen year old girl, in a breakthrough role that will surely mean an acting career for her. Revisiting her starring role from the Best of Sundance 2004 short, Gowanus, Brooklyn, that Half Nelson was adapted from, Epps gives such a strong performance that she almost steals the show from Gosling. The blossoming Drey is the mythical student that Dunne is looking for. She listens in class and looks to almost have a crush on her favorite teacher. This is all sent spinning when she discovers Dunne crashed out in a stall in the girl's locker room after an after school, crack smoking binge. No stranger to the drugs that are a part of her environment, Drey shows compassion and takes care of her teacher, bringing him wet towels to mop his face. Dunne responds by giving her a ride home and they eventually strike up a friendship. Drey eventually gets caught up in the Drug game, making deliveries for the Dope man Frank, played by Anthony Mackie. The position of each of the friends on different sides of the supply/distribution chain makes for some intense dramatic irony.

      Director Ryan Fleck really makes some good choices in the filming of the strong script (written by himself and Anna Boden). First of all, he doesn't glorify Dunne's drug use. There are no extreme close ups of a crack pipe being lit or of lines sniffed. The drug use is just a part of the story and the teacher's life, just like it is a part of many people's everyday life, in one form or another. I also liked the director's use of juxtaposition to tie into the dialectic theme of the film. In one scene, we see shots of Drey at the dealer Frank's house intercut with images from a dinner party at Dunne's parent's house. Images of coke being vialed up for sale juxtaposed with the drunken revelry and off-color remarks made at a white people's party really makes the viewer think about which behaviors are condemned and accepted by society. Another good use of juxtaposition is when we see scenes of Drey applying makeup (not her norm as a tomboyish girl) next to a love scene between Dunn and another teacher that he has hooked up with.

      Half Nelson is strongly emotional drama and a fine example of a great independent film. If you are tired of the typical Hollywood fluff that has been coming out in theatres lately, give this film a try. You will be uplifted and might even gain some inspiration to find a way out of the strangleholds of your own that life sometimes imposes.

Neil Norman is a freelance writer and a graduate of the University of Central Florida. Neil also works on independent film productions.

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