Half Nelson
Look out! He’s going over the top!

Golden Mug

Actor (Ryan Gosling)
Actress (Shareeka Epps)
Original Screenplay (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)

Theatrical Release Date: 08/11/2006
Director: Ryan Fleck
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps

Last time I checked the calendar, it was September. So why in the hell is “Half Nelson” being released now?

Usually, the Oscar contenders are brought out in December, to keep the movies fresh in the voters’ minds.

Oh, I’m sorry. Did I skip ahead?

“Half Nelson” is a small, independent film about a teacher and one of his students. The generic Hollywood film would have a troubled youth who gets turned around by a heroic mentor figure.

This is anything but a generic Hollywood film.

The teacher is flawed, still nursing a drug habit and barely keeping himself afloat. The student has no positive male role models in her life and is trying to decide how to live her life, bearing so much of the responsibility of raising herself. Together, maybe they have a chance of finding something real to hold onto.

That’s a gross oversimplification but you get the gist.

To play such a complicated role, the filmmakers chose one of the very most talented actors in his generation, Ryan Gosling.

Yes, he’s that guy from “The Notebook” but don’t let that dissuade you if you happen to have a Y chromosome.

Gosling is capable of handling intense and complex material, unlike so many of the actors in his age range (yeah, I’m talking to you Freddie Prinze Jr.).

In “Half Nelson”, his character struggles to be a positive force in the lives of his students while coping with drug addiction and depression. While not entirely similar, Gosling’s performance in “The United States of Leland” seems almost like a direct precursor to this role.

If you haven’t seen that film either, go add it to your queue. Moreover, if Gosling does not get some award attention for this role, I will … not be surprised because usually great performances in small films get overlooked (i.e. last year’s Mysterious Skin).

Damn the man!

To match up to Gosling’s exceptional performance, re-enter Shareeka Epps.

I say ‘re-enter’ because this is actually a revisit to the role, as “Half Nelson” is the long version of the short film “Gowanus, Brooklyn”. However, while Epps is not inventing a truly new character, her performance is still noteworthy.

Child actors often fail to match up to their adult peers but Epps was utterly convincing.

Therein lies perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay to the film. Often, I would forget that I was watching a movie and it felt like I was watching a documentary or reality show.

I became so wrapped up in these people’s situations that the only escape came when I applied their on-screen psychoses to my own.

Dips into the murky depths of my own mind aside, Epps and Gosling created completely endearing yet broken people – people that needed something else in their lives to anchor themselves down before they floated away.

These are easily two of the best performances of the year so far.

Part of the credit should also go to director Ryan Fleck. He shot the film in 16mm, adding a grainy and intimate look and feel. That may have been a budgetary decision but it was the right one.

Credit should also go to Anthony Mackie who provides a strong supporting performance and Anna Boden, who co-wrote the film (and short film) with Fleck. Their script was very smart and they understood that the film didn’t need huge, lengthy monologues.

The devil is in the details as they say, and in film, the subtext given by the actors in looks and mannerisms are so much more expressive sometimes that what the written word can provide.

I could go on and on, extolling praise upon “Half Nelson”. Instead, I will just sum it up and let you get out to whatever theater near you is playing the film.

To no surprise after all the raving I just did, I’m giving “Half Nelson” a 5 out of 5.

This year is shaping up to be a wonderful year for films, with other perfect scores already being given out to Little Miss Sunshine and Somersault. All three are sure to be in the running for the top ten of the year and should not be missed.