It’s so handheld! It’s so Method! It’s so improvisational! It’s so – SUNDANCE! I generally like all that and I have great affection for “Half Nelson,” the Sundance-y film about the white heroin-addicted teacher’s tentative friendship with a black junior high girl who knows his secret. But maybe it’s because I found out it was based on a short film the day I watched it that it just never feels like it goes anywhere. Good films have been based on film school shorts – “Napoleon Dynamite” and “George Washington” come to mind – but any 15 minutes of “Half Nelson” work as well as any other 15 minutes.
Pull out a piece (except at the very beginning) and BAM, perfect, honest, atmospheric short film. Essentially the movie repeats situations over-and-over again with slight changes by degrees. The heroin-addicted schoolteacher’s lectures gradually get more disjointed. His friendship with the girl gradually scooches forward. The girl gradually gets pulled deeper into the orbit of her big brother’s drug dealer friend. “Half Nelson” even has a short film’s non-ending.
Still, “Half Nelson” is soulful, honest, and ambient, with a completely believable lead relationship – the actress playing the girl matches Gosling in chest-mumbling Method-iness at every step. (Gosling rubs his face, chews air, and stares contemplatively a lot in this movie.) Anthony Mackie’s drug dealer is also surprisingly genial – in the same way that the schoolteacher says he is not defined by his addiction, so the drug dealer is not defined by his job. Neither is a terrible person. In fact, “Half Nelson” makes a point of mirroring the two men: both berate a referee at a school basketball game, both look after the girl, and both, ultimately, warn her to stay away from the other. Oscar-nominated for Best Actor, at least it’s Indie chic, and not Oscar-clip acting.
Copyright (c) 2007 Friday & Saturday Night
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