A great movie about dealing with drug addiction and the duality of man.
This DVD would have been completed nicely with a commentary track from Ryan Gosling.
Ryan Gosling gives a very strong performance as Dan Dunne in Half Nelson. By day he is a provocative History teacher, inspiring his students to think about world events and episodes from the past in new ways. Dunne also finds time to coach a girls basketball team and is the kind of teacher I think all parents would want their kids to have. At night, Dan's biggest vice is that of drugs and alcohol. He seems like a wounded man. A lost soul who is alone and is just unhappy with where life has placed him. Dunne is unlike any teacher we have ever seen on screen before because he has a lot of answers but there are also many questions about himself.
One night, after getting high in the bathroom after a basketball game, he is caught by Drey (Shareeka Epps) who actually tries to help him. They form an interesting friendship and Dan begins to feel protective of his student. Drey is a smart girl but she also has influences like Frank (Anthony Mackie) in her life. He is a drug dealer who also feels responsible for his child because her brother took a fall and is now doing time for him. Eventually, this movie moves from not being so much about the secret of Dunne's drug habit, as it is about the relationship between all these people.
Some might feel that director Ryan Fleck's minimalist approach is ill suited here, personally I think it elevates Half Nelson into a movie of universal themes that are more important than anything else.
Deleted and Extended Scenes
There is in interesting assortment of these but unfortunately I didn't feel like the deleted scenes added much to this film. In fact, they just seem like a few seconds more of some scenes that were actually in the movie. They aren't bad, but I much preferred the extended scenes even though those don't offer much else. This isn't the kind of DVD that is going to answer your questions about where the characters go once the final credits roll. Half Nelson is the kind of movie that could have come out with no extras, but the ones offered compliment the film more than they explain it.
I had to watch these simply because Ryan Gosling presents himself as such a serious actor, that I wanted to see what he was like on the set. Well, he isn't above practical jokes, and amidst the calls he and other actors make on one another, there's also a lot of missed lines, laughter, and shots of Gosling giving the camera a thumbs up. This should certainly be watched simply because it shows another side of all these performers.
Fleck does this commentary with Anna Boden who he wrote the film with. They talk about how Gosling would hum and that ended up being in the movie, what the title Half Nelson means, and how the film was cast. Boden and Fleck also give us a little backstory (this movie originated as a short film), explain how the scenes were lit so the actors could freely move around, and they also discuss the themes of the film. Some of the most interesting moments are when they pointed out what was and wasn't scripted.
1.78:1 - Anamorphic Widescreen. This movie has a look that feels like the sun shining on your face when you're extremely tired. A big portion of that is probably to get the viewers into the mindset of Dan Dunne. The film feels like a documentary in parts, yet it isn't cut in a way that obscures the character's actions or plots. I also liked that this film used really tightly composed shots, and focused on the actors and not on the perceived production values of the city. Because of this, the movie has an Anywhere USA feeling.
English 5.1 - Dolby Digital - English - Stereo. Subtitled in English and Spanish. Mastered in High Definition. Close Captioned. The music in this movie underscored the characters and situations completely. I never thought for a moment that Ryan Fleck was trying to throw a soundtrack together. He seems to use audio to further get us into these characters minds, but he never beats us over the head with it. He simply presents the story and it is up to us to decide how we feel about the characters and where we think they end up.
Ryan Gosling is featured prominently on this front cover that has Mackie and Epps behind him. In the distance is a shot of the New York skyline, and if you give this cover a quick glance it seems like it was hand drawn with pastels. The back has a shot of Gosling and Epps walking together against the skyline, a couple of glowing critic's quotes, a description of this movie, a Special Features list, a cast list and system specs.
Two things bode very well for Half Nelson. First of all, it isn't preachy and it doesn't seem like a film that is manipulating it's characters to put off it's own philosophy. Sure, there are political points that Dunne makes in the classroom, but it's more about the kids discussing history than anything else. Also, despite how it might look on the surface, this isn't a film where a White guy comes in and saves a Black girl. In fact, I didn't even realize this movie was set in New York until I listened to the commentary. Race has so little to do with the focus this film places on people, their problems, and how sometimes we just are who are and that's what we need to work with. What I loved was that despite his addiction, despite what happened to him, Dan Dunne (for the most part) always showed up to work. He did his job regardless of his situation.
The second thing is the fact that nothing in this movie happens the way you think it might. Everything doesn't seem "all better at the end." When Dan confronts Frank it doesn't become a screaming match about a White guy trying to help a Black girl. This film is much too smart for all that special interest garbage and I feel it is one of the most accurate portrayals of the current generation that has been put on screen today.
Half Nelson was released August 11, 2006.