'Half': Wholly Absorbing

Friday, August 25, 2006

In "Half Nelson," Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a junior high school teacher in Brooklyn who tries to teach his students Hegelian dialectics by day and smokes crack by night. Like Diane Keaton's character in "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," Gosling's Dan seems to be cracking between the pressures of his ideals and a nagging sense of cynicism and futility. He's writing a children's book, but it sits on his coffee table half-finished, under overflowing ashtrays.

The good news in Dan's life is a promising student named Drey (short for Audrey), who is played in a revelatory debut performance by Shareeka Epps. It takes a strong actor to work with Gosling, whose performance here is reminiscent of his spectacular (and little-seen) performance in the 2001 film "The Believer." (See In Focus on Page 31.) But Epps, whose watchful inner focus is only enhanced by her beaming smile, shows she's every bit equal to the task as a tough and vulnerable 13-year-old girl caught between the teacher she idolizes and an equally charismatic and protective drug dealer (Anthony Mackie).

Ryan Fleck, who directed "Half Nelson" from a script he wrote with Anna Boden, filmed much of the movie with a hand-held camera in Brooklyn, lending the production a vérité immediacy. Clearly this is a world the filmmakers have experienced firsthand, from the rambunctious classroom to Dan's bourgeois liberal parents, who medicate their own dashed dreams with glass upon glass of red wine . Nearly every scene rings with its own ragged truth, which becomes increasingly painful as Dan's addiction becomes more unmanageable and as he refuses to confront the untenable politics of his own behavior.

-- Ann Hornaday

Half Nelson R, 106 minutes Contains pervasive drug content, profanity and some sexuality. At Landmark's Bethesda Row and Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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