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Half Nelson

The dogs days of late summer releases may be upon us but not everything coming out at the moment is bad. Take the independent film Half Nelson (opening September 8 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas), it offers a nicely observed drama about a teacher and his student.

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a middle school history teacher. He is young, hip and laidback. He has the kind of easy manner and slightly anti-establishment attitude that make students like him and administrators suspicious of him. He doesn't like to teach out of the required text but rather he tries to invest his lessons with a personal passion that he hopes will touch the kids. He teaches that history is about opposing forces pushing back and forth against each other to provoke a change. With the exception of a couple kids sleeping in the back of the room, Dunne's lessons seem at the very least to engage his young students and sometimes even inspire them. He also connects with the kids by coaching the girl's basketball team after school.

At school, Dunne is in his element. But outside of school is another story. Dunne lives in a somewhat shabby apartment and relies on drugs and alcohol to get him through his nights and weekends. The fact that he can pull himself together each weekday morning to make it to class is amazing. But he credits the students with providing the focus in his life, and maybe even the reason he drags himself out of bed in the morning. But keeping his act together is getting more and more difficult. He starts to use drugs on campus, and one evening after basketball practice Drey (Shareeka Epps) finds him getting high in the bathroom. She doesn't say anything about it but she starts to take an interest in his fate. But Drey has issues of her own. Her mom works long hours and leaves Drey to her own devices; she has a brother in jail; a deadbeat dad; and a local drug dealer who has taken her under his wing since her brother took the fall for him. Both Drey and Dunne are at points in their lives where they will have to make decisions about which way they want to go. The surprise of the film is how their relationship develops and how they prove able to help each other even when they sometimes seem unable to help themselves.

Although Ryan Fleck gets directing/writing credit and Anna Boden gets writing/producing credit, the film seems a close creative collaboration of the two filmmakers, who have worked together a number of times before. They keep the tone low-key and for the most part avoid melodrama and cliche. For instance, the local drug dealer actually seems to have his act together better than Dunne, and he has his own kind of social awareness. Yet the filmmakers don't sugar coat him and reveal that at the end of the day he's a businessman. In addition, the film ends hopefully, yet it doesn't serve up a big final confrontation where Dunne suddenly makes the realization that what he's doing is wrong. Instead, the film works through quieter scenes that lead to smaller revelations.

The filmmakers over-employ a shaky, handheld camera. The style is meant to convey a documentary feel but after a point it proves a distraction. It's fine at the beginning and in some of the scenes on the street or at the school. But in the more intimate scenes between characters, it makes us aware of the filmmakers' presence and reminds us that we're watching a film.

The performances are nicely understated. Epps has a strong screen presence that demands our attention even when she's silent. She doesn't say a lot but we get the sense that there's a lot going on inside this young girl. Gosling, who played another conflicted young man in The Believer, delivers a performance that's slightly more pat and less natural than Epps. He's got the disillusioned, searching thing down and he has a number of scenes where his character just seems to be drifting and mulling over, "what the hell am I doing?" But he conveys Dunne's sad, quiet meltdown in a manner that ultimately wins our sympathy.

Half Nelson (rated PG-13 for language, sexual content and drug use) is refreshing fare amidst the late summer dregs. It's not a great film but it's a well crafted and sincere work that provides characters we genuinely come to care about.

Companion viewing: Election, Stand and Deliver, To Sir With Love

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