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Half Nelson’ highlights power of relationships

Rama Gottumukkala | Friday, April 20, 2007

When Ryan Gosling climbs into character and takes his place by the chalkboard in “Half Nelson,” he commands complete attention.

Although he was nominated for an Academy Award, Gosling is not the first actor to play this role. But the familiarity he brings to Dan Dunne, a charismatic but flawed inner-city teacher, makes all the difference.

Not because you’ve seen this character in some other movie, but because Gosling makes you feel like you’ve met the man before. Exuding the warmth and comfort of a formative schoolteacher, he entices you to lean forward and listen more closely to his words.

This tactile connection between actor and audience drives “Half Nelson,” a wonderfully understated and frequently touching film. Dunne leads two very different lives.

By day, he’s a dedicated and caring middle-school teacher and basketball coach.

But at night, he wanders through parties and streets, limp and lifeless, searching for his next crack cocaine fix. As the movie progresses, night and day begin to blur precariously. After one particularly long day, Dunne ducks into a locker room to get high, thinking he’s alone.

Fortunately, Trey (Shareeka Epps), a mature but reserved girl from Dunne’s class, walks in on him sitting dazed in one of the bathroom stalls, legs pulled up to avoid being detected.

This scene is chilling in its effectiveness. Played almost entirely without dialogue, the emotion tugs at us through looks stained with pain, shock and shame.

Like many of the best moments in the film, it boils the action down to one profound relationship. Soon, an unlikely friendship develops between teacher and student that extends beyond the classroom, and with far greater consequences.

At its heart, “Half Nelson” works as a simple, somewhat predictable story told well. Regardless, the film thrives on its approach to the material, where much is left unsaid and there are no easy answers for Dunne’s pitiable condition. All of this is elevated by the remarkable chemistry between Gosling and Epps.

With its recent release on a single-disc DVD, “Half Nelson” is finally available to the wide audience it deserved but never got during its limited art-house theatrical run. With crisp video and audio quality, the film’s striking cinematography and nuanced soundtrack are on fine display.

For special features, the disc includes deleted scenes, outtakes and a music video. The main attraction, however, is a meticulous commentary from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the talented writer-director team behind the picture.

Consistently entertaining, they discuss how a sub-million dollar independent film gets financed and made and the various technical and acting choices used to bring the material to life. Only a “Half Nelson” trailer is lacking here.

Gosling’s rare empathic ability to capture us within minutes of his arrival ensures that Dunne’s troubles become our own – the mark of any fine drama. “Half Nelson” is one of those all-too-rare films that test your patience for much of the running time, before finally rewarding you for your indulgence.

It subtly builds to a final, entirely silent confrontation between mentor and pupil. The sad little smile Gosling gives to Epps is heartbreaking in its sincerity, a quiet moment of truth that is as raw and moving a segment of cinema as the medium can muster.