IFFBoston Opening Night: Half Nelson

Let’s get this out of the way first: Ryan Gosling is sexy. Sexy in that smooooth, cocky, I – know – he’s – working – me – but – it’s – so – much – fun – falling – under – his – spell kind of way, the way we girls kick ourselves afterward for being attracted to. I kicked myself for it while watching the movie, in fact. It’s all in the way they look at you. A guy who’s not afraid to look you dead in the eye, and hold your gaze, subtly predatory yet at the same time slightly elusive, luring you in rather than pouncing. It is even literalized in his body movement in one scene where he’s talking to a girl while peeking from around the corner.

That’s the main impression I came away with after watching Half Nelson, anyway. It’s not really the point of the film, and in fact I wonder if it might have detracted a bit from the film, which is about a drug-addicted high school teacher and the friendship he strikes up with one of his students who discovers his secret. After awhile his shtick got a little annoying, and felt instead like he was hamming it up for the camera. But it is also all a part of the inappropriateness of his character–his highly sexually-charged persona, like his drug addiction, is something we don’t expect, nor want to think about, in our teachers. In fact, thinking of them having personal lives at all usually brings a grimace to the face of any high school student. Maybe college too. The Village Voice says the film “pays fond tribute to, even as it slyly subverts, the inspirational classroom fable,” and I suppose that’s true, though a film that plays with genre conventions really only accomplishes a stretching of those conventions–it doesn’t ever break them. The genre just folds them in and they become new conventions. Overall it’s a strange beast–an “edgier” Lean On Me, where the teacher is as flawed as his students and no one is really saved in the end. In the obligatory inspirational teacher’s speech near the end, he preaches against Western black-and-white values that refuse to acknowledge that a tree can be “both crooked AND straight, a person both right AND wrong…” making sure you get the point the filmmakers are trying to get across.

But Gosling’s performance is the real reason to see this movie–there are shades of greatness, and once he learns to control the hamminess I think he’ll be one of the truly great actors of his generation. Newcomer Shareeka Epps likewise delivers a wonderfully subtle performance–so subtle that I thought it might just be the effect of shyness or nervousness in a young, new actor, but when I saw her gregariousness at the Q&A afterward I realized that was some serious acting going on there.

Tonight it’s more of the same themes as I’m off to see the public high school satire Chalk and then the morally-ambiguous drug-addict drama Cocaine Angel. More soon…

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