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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Wrestling with Reality
by Geoffrey D. Roberts

Writer/director Ryan Fleck and screenwriter Anna Boden, graduates of the renowned New York University film school, originally wrote the script for Half Nelson back in 2002. This script was to be their first professional project, but they soon realized they didn't have enough money or assets to bring it to fruition.

Fleck and Boden decided to abridge their script, hire their friends as crew members, and then audition and cast children who lived in their community to make a short film entitled Gowanus, Brooklyn. They had no idea this little movie would win the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. This award motivated the pair to dust off their longer script and make it into a feature film.

Both Fleck and Boden wanted only one actor for the male lead: Ryan Gosling (The Notebook). When Gosling received a copy of the script, he was instantly drawn to the project. Fleck, who provides solid direction for Half Nelson, claims he cast this young actor because he possessed “a quiet intensity, with the potential to erupt at any moment.” The director found this particular quality thrilling to watch.

Half Nelson centers on Dan Dunne (Gosling), a successful teacher with an unconventional approach to teaching. Dunne has a sense of vigor and passion for what he does. Abandoning textbooks, he teaches students how history relates to them and the way it continually transforms our lives.  While successful in the classroom, Dunne's life has fallen apart outside of it. Addicted to crack cocaine, he's leading a double life. Up until now, the addiction has not interfered with his teaching abilities. However, things are about to change.   

Drey (Shareeka Epps) was not supposed to be inside the school after extra-curricular activities concluded. She should have been picked up after playing basketball, but her lift never arrived. She enters the washroom where Dunne lays sprawled out on the floor with a vial of crack. Because of this strange encounter, an unlikely bond forms between Drey and Dunne. 

Drey lacks positive role models aside from her mother who is hardly ever home. Drey’s brother sits in a prison cell after he became the scapegoat for a lowlife named Frank (Anthony Mackie), who peddles narcotics and has shown an interest in Drey. Despite being Mackie’s client and relying on him for his fix, Dunne makes it clear to Frank that he is never to come anywhere near Drey again.

Plucked from a pool of students who attended open auditions for Gowanus, Brooklyn, Epps is a rare find. She's natural, raw, naive and tough all at the same time in her portrayal of Drey. Dissolving completely into her character, Epps gives a powerful and outstanding performance. 

Gosling spent the month before filming living in Forte Green, which is part of Brooklyn, taking in the environment where Dunne might have lived and worked. During this time, he  watched Dan Easton inspire and teach his eighth grade class in a creative and unconventional way, and this fueled Gosling's performance. Ironically, when Fleck was looking to cast the role of Dunne’s brother, he turned to Easton.

Like the late River Phoenix before him, Ryan Gosling is not content with just "playing" a character. The actor feels he must embody the part and soak up the environment where he would exist in real life, thereby gaining a sense of the people, places, and things the character might be drawn to. The end result is a striking performance, one in which Gosling owns his character. The audience’s ability to distinguish between the actor and the character he portrays is completely blurred here. Gosling’s amazing star turn -- as well as Half Nelson itself -- should not be missed.

(Released by ThinkFilm and rated "R" for drug content throughout, language and some sexuality.)

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