Rated: R (drug content, language and some sexuality)
Length: 107 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Languages: English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2-channel stereo
Subtitles: English, Spanish
The Program: 5/5
Half Nelson is one of the most powerful films I have seen during the past year or so. It features an Oscar-nominated performance by Best Actor nominee Ryan Gosling and spot-on acting by a talented (if largely unknown) supporting cast. It earned director Ryan Fleck a Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. If, like most people, you missed its theatrical run, you now have the opportunity to see it on DVD..
Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a white history teacher and coach of the girls’ basketball team in a mostly-black junior high school in Brooklyn. During schooldays Dan has learned how to connect with his students -- he says that they keep him grounded – but by night he is in the grip of a worsening crack addiction. He rationalizes his crack use by claiming that he has it under control, and he rationalizes his failure to successfully complete a rehab program because it “doesn’t work for everyone.”
Dan develops a special affinity for Drey (portrayed by young newcomer Shareeka Epps in an amazingly natural performance), a 13-year-old black girl who is a good student and the best player on the basketball team. Drey lives with her mother, an Emergency Medical Technician who routinely works double shifts and usually is at work when Drey gets home from school. Drey’s only sibling, an older brother, is serving a prison term. Drey wonders and worries if she will end up like her brother. Her father lives nearby but is mostly absent from her life.
Complicating matters is the fact that the only adult in the neighborhood who seems to care about Drey is Frankie (superbly played by Anthony Mackie), the local drug dealer. On a superficial level Frankie really seems to care about Drey, but it is difficult to shake the nagging feeling that deep down he only uses people for his own gain.
Dan would like to save Drey from the seamy influences in her life, but it is difficult for him to take the moral high ground when his own life is caught in the grip -– the “Half Nelson” of the title – of drugs. Drey has to reconsider her attitude toward her teacher and coach when she discovers Dan smoking crack in the girls’ locker room after a game.
Dan explains to his class that history is a series of opposite forces pushing against each other. This is a metaphor for his own personal struggle between his basic good nature and his crack addiction. His drug use has cost him a relationship with the woman he loves and now threatens to cost him his job.
It is a gritty story which never fails to ring true. Gosling is equally believable as a dedicated teacher by day and an out-of-control addict by night. Anthony Mackie is brilliantly slimy as the smooth Frankie, who actually seems likeable until you realize that he is willing to use teenagers as his drug couriers. Shareeka Epps -- whose only prior acting experience was in the short subject upon which Half Nelson is based –- gives a remarkable performance as a girl who wants to avoid a life of crime but who is sorely tempted by the easy money which can be made by dealing drugs.
Half Nelson is a film which stays with you long after the lights have come up. In addition to its exploration of the drug culture, it is an incisive look at the obstacles facing both teachers and students in inner-city public schools. Some students sleep through class (when they bother to show up at all). Teachers who want their students to develop analytical skills are held back by school administrators who are focused on test scores and insist that teachers slavishly follow the approved curriculum. Half Nelson gives the viewer a great deal to think about.
This DVD is highly recommended.
The Video 4/5
The anamorphic widescreen transfer exhibits a fair amount of grain, but that appears to be how it looked in theaters and the grain actually fits with the gritty subject matter. Most of the scenes take place indoors or at night, so you won’t be seeing vibrant colors or beautiful vistas. However, the picture is generally sharp and well-detailed. There is a fair amount of hand-held camera work, but fortunately it is mostly devoid of the headache-inducing shakiness found in some films. The film was shot on location in Brooklyn.
The Audio 4/5
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is particularly effective when delivering the music from the film’s soundtrack. Since the action takes place mostly indoors, there is not much in the way of sound effects, but the music does a fine job of enhancing the more intense dramatic scenes. The film features original music by Broken Social Scene.
The Supplements 4/5
The supplements include a commentary by director Ryan Fleck and producer/co-writer Anna Boden. This is the first time they have done an audio commentary, but they do a fairly good job of it. One of the more interesting aspects that they reveal is that most of the students in the film are real students with little or no acting experience. One shot of a student sleeping at his desk was a shot taken of a real student who slept while the filmmakers were setting up their cameras in the classroom.
Other extras include deleted and extended scenes, some humorous outtakes, and the Rhymefest “Wanted” music video. I would have liked to have seen Sony include the 19-minute short film, “Gowanus, Brooklyn,” which Fleck and Boden made in 2004.
The DVD is divided into 28 chapters which can be accessed in the main menu. There are also trailers for a half-dozen current Sony/Columbia DVD releases.
The Final Analysis: 5/5
Half Nelson was not given wide theatrical distribution, but it was one of the highest-rated movies of 2006 on rottentomatoes.com. Ryan Gosling probably will not win the Best Actor award at this year’s Oscars, but he clearly is deserving of his nomination. While the subject matter is not everyone’s cup of tea, it is a harrowing, disquieting and ultimately uplifting film.
Equipment used for this review:
Cambridge Audio DVD-89 DVD player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: February 13, 2007