Review: Half Nelson
Here in New York, the most popular hipster summer activity has been attending concerts at the renovated McCarren Park Pool in Williamsburg. They've been offering a mix of free shows featuring small bands and ticketed concerts with big name headliners, and every ironic mustached dude and bed headed chick in town turns up. This Sunday past, the best performance was from local outfit, Beirut, which is actually a 20-year-old kid with a ukulele, a trumpet, a soulful voice and an eclectic backing band. He mixes a cacophony of influences into something really beautiful and unique. Watching him rock this huge crowd of unwashed irony, I couldn't help but think like a proud mother hen, This Is Indie Rock At Its Finest. I mention all of this because I felt the same swelling of pride at my screening of Half Nelson, another homegrown Brooklyn product that rocks the silver screen with serious indie joie de vivre.
Directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden on the streets of Brooklyn last summer for a pittance, Half Nelson stars Ryan Gosling as Dan Dunne, a middle school history teacher. By day, Dan inspires his predominantly African American students with examples from history who created social change but by night, he feeds a serious hard drug habit. One afternoon after coaching a game for the girl's basketball team, one of his students, Drey (the phenomenal newcomer Shareeka Epps) discovers a high Dan passed out on the bathroom floor, crack pipe still in hand. From this incident an unlikely and at times inappropriate friendship develops between Dan and Drey, as both struggle like wrestlers in an uncomfortable choke-hold to "do the right thing." (Pssst, Spike Lee, first films, and Brooklyn references in that phrase are all intentional.)
Perhaps the most exhilarating part of Half Nelson is that at every moment where the film could devolve into After School Special territory, it strikes off into brand new, cliché-free vistas. Gosling plays a huge part in this, as his performance makes Dan both incredibly likable and yet still despicable. Also his depiction of drug stupor and the stasis of a life with only the goal to make it to the next high seems very believable. Another aspect Fleck and Boden completely nail is the building of their character's worlds with shades of detail. How did Dan end up this way? A dinner party scene with his heavily social drinking parents gives an inkling. Why doesn't hunky Dan have a girlfriend? An encounter with an old flame who used to be a user too begins to fill this in. Why doesn't Drey's family know what's going on with her? A chat on the couch with her EMT Mom gives an idea. None of these moments beat you over the head with psychological causality, yet they add so much to the whole experience of watching this movie.
Sometimes being young, living in a certain place and not feeling any of the pressures to be mainstream can lead to beautiful art. With no one telling these artists what is expected, they can express what's most real inside them. It seems that Beirut, Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden and even arguably, Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps, have stumbled on this magic formula. Their work bursts with originality and heart. They make me happy to believe in the possibility of being indie.