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Wholly in praise of ‘Half Nelson’


FORGET THE CLASSICS: Ryan Gosling's Dunne is a different kind of history teacher.
  • FORGET THE CLASSICS: Ryan Gosling's Dunne is a different kind of history teacher.

It seems every couple of years somebody makes one of those recruiting films about a teacher. You know the plot already: Idealistic teacher/coach/principal transfers to crummy school. Though he/she is disrespected at first, his/her love for the subject eventually wins the tearful admiration and or love of his/her students.

Know how many people are — at this second — working $25,000-a-year teaching jobs because of “Dead Poet’s Society?” A lot.

That said, we’ve finally seen the anti-Teacher Recruiting movie; a dark gem of a film called “Half Nelson.” More about the way lost people can find each other than any kind of soul-redeeming platitude or gift-wrapped conclusion, “Half Nelson” is one of the best films I’ve seen in years.

Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a white high school teacher at an all-black school. On the surface Dunne is the classic teacher-flick teacher, an inspiring figure who talks to his students like adults and flaunts the school’s iron-clad lesson plans to teach his students why history matters — the kind of guy who takes the time to coach the girl’s basketball team. Soon, however, we learn his secret: a nasty cocaine habit that turns into a crack addiction when his dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie) suggests a lower-cost alternative to fit his teacher’s pay.

Zonked out on crack in the girl’s locker room one night after a ball game, Dunne is surprised when one of his players, Drey (Shareeka Epps), comes in and discovers him there, smoldering pipe in hand. Though Dunne thinks Drey will use the knowledge to destroy him, she has bigger problems: an absent mother, a brother who is in jail, and the drug dealer Frank, who wants to insinuate himself into her life because of his guilt over her brother going to the slammer for him. For reasons both noble and selfish, Dunne soon strikes up a friendship with Drey, though the triangle formed between them and Frank ultimately dooms the relationship.

Under the direction of Ryan Fleck, who wowed me a couple years back with “The Believer,” his tale of a Jewish skinhead, the entire cast of “Half Nelson” is simply a joy to watch, handily taking any expectations that this might be another feel-good blackboard yarn and flinging them right out the window. Gosling is excellent here as the alternately selfless and selfish Dunne, as is Mackie in the role of Frank— a drug dealer with the one thing most urban characters in film lack: a conscience.

These performances pale, however, to that delivered by newcomer Epps. Her Drey is a revelation, full of both the wide-eyed wonder of childhood and the world-weariness and disillusionment of a kid raised poor in the inner city. I wouldn’t be surprised if — even as young as she is — she gets a nom for Best Supporting at Oscar time.

Gritty, raw, lovely and powerful, “Half Nelson” a film that can school those pretenders on what heart really is. 

No saving this one
Speaking of teacher movies, another tired old plot, stretching all the way back to flicks like “Top Gun” and “Officer and a Gentleman” — though perfected in crapola like “G.I. Jane,” “Men of Honor” and “Hollywood Homicide” — is the Craggy Veteran/Young Hotshot movie.

You know the one I’m talking about: A craggy and burned out (and possibly divorced, suicidal, or alcoholic) veteran cop/pilot/Navy SEAL/skipper/candlestick maker takes on a young hotshot recruit. Though they butt heads, the youngster won’t quit. Over time, the Young Hotshot and the Craggy Veteran gradually gain each other’s grudging respect. Usually, the crescendo involves the Young Hotshot/Craggy Veteran pressed into peril together, wherein the youngster saves the geezer, thereby passing the reins.

The latest retread of this long blown-out plot is the new film “The Guardian.” This time, the Craggy Vet is Ben Randall (Kevin Costner), the U.S. Coast Guard’s most highly decorated rescue swimmer — one of the guys who jumps into stormy seas and physically puts people into a basket so they can be hoisted to the safety of a helicopter hovering overhead. Stationed in Alaska on the treacherous Bering Sea, Randall’s entire crew is wiped out during rescue-gone-wrong. His marriage soon falls apart, he starts hitting the bottle too hard, and before you can say, “saw that one coming,” he is transferred to the Coast Guard rescue swimmer training school at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where he soon establishes himself as the resident hardass. In his first class is Young Hotshot Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), an ex-champion swimmer who joins the Coast Guard after (TA-DA!) a car wreck that killed his entire high school swim team. With Fischer intent on becoming the best rescue swimmer ever, he and Randall butt heads, but Fischer won’t quit. Gradually, Fischer and Randall earn each other’s grudging … well, you know the rest.

With the exception of Kutcher’s giant Adam’s apple — which may well garner an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Gland and/or Growth this year — everyone in “The Guardian” seems to be operating on autopilot, perhaps understanding that they are astride the most clapped-out pony in the stables. Will I ruin the movie for you if I say that when the Young Hotshot’s first rescue attempt goes wrong, Randall has to come out of retirement, put on his swim fins one more time, and save the day — getting the call as he is literally carrying a box full of his awards and honors from his office to his pickup truck? Probably not. You saw that one coming, didn’t you?

Mostly, “The Guardian” is a good excuse to film Coast Guard helicopters flying against breathtaking backdrops and stirring music. While it’s sure to spur a nice jump in Coast Guard enlistment, it fails to make the grade as a functioning piece of cinema.

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