Saturday, August 05, 2006

Life lessons

Ryan Gosling, 25, is the best actor of his generation. In all his adult roles--he got his start as a child actor, on TV shows like Young Hercules--there is a commitment to his craft unseen since Edward Norton burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s. From his first breakthrough credit, as a violent Neo-Nazi with a secret past in 2001's The Believer, the drive and dedication to climb inside a character was palpably exciting. More exciting, it must be said, than the films themselves, including that ultimately didactic credit--he and Michael Pitt were a combustible pair of teen thrill killers in the sputtering mystery Murder By Numbers (2002), and he and Rachel McAdams brought conviction to his one hit, the eras-crossed romantic melodrama The Notebook (2004), as much as the actors playing their senior selves, James Garner and Gena Rowlands. Gosling has made the most of good parts in questionable films; what he needs is for one of them to reach his level of energy and discipline.

Half Nelson (Thinkfilm; opens August 11) isn't it. A certain reticence common to indie films holds it back--inference and suggestion substitute, inadequately, for showing and telling. But Gosling digs in deep, as a schoolteacher at a Brooklyn junior high whose strong bond with his inner-city students masks a shakier sense of self-worth as he slips into crack addiction. In truth, he's a little miscast; the role calls for someone a few years older, and a 25-year-old with facial hair trying to pass for 30-ish looks like a 25-year-old with facial hair trying to pass for 30-ish. But the first-time director, Ryan Fleck, was right not to card him at the door. Fleck knew he would bring something more to the part than chin stubble, and Gosling, as always, steps up. The scenes with the kids, as his character, Dan Dunne, challenges and cajoles them on topics including civil rights and history, are delightful--better than the stock "inspirational" scenes in movies like Dangerous Minds. There's a real give-and-take here, a genuine passion; the movie seems to happening live, right before your eyes, in an actual classroom.

Scanning the dial last winter I came across a Sundance Channel showing of a short film, entitled Gowanus, Brooklyn. I don't live too far from there, and its infamous, clambering-back-to-life canal, so I decided to tune in. Half Nelson is the feature-length expansion of that impressive effort, and Fleck has retained its co-star, Shareeka Epps, as Drey, a student who finds Dan high one day after class and non-judgmentally, but warily, guards his secret. [Drey's neighborhood, and home life, have fallen under the sway of a drug dealer, played with casual, cutting bemusement by Broadway performer Anthony Mackie.] There's joy in watching talented actors bounce off one another, especially when the balance tilts and Drey, the student, played with complete naturalism by Epps, is forced to carry Dan's baggage. Theirs is not a predictable relationship, and its off-guard quality pretty much carries the film.

In expanding the short, Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden have added characters, notably Dan's parents, played by Deborah Rush and Jay O. Sanders. But they haven't dramatized these relationships as well as the scenes with the students, and Half Nelson loses oxygen whenever it moves from the center to the periphery. You start to notice things, like the summery quality of the outdoor scenes for a story that's taking place during basketball season. [Then again, Brooklyn is a sunnier, far less shaded borough than Manhattan, so it may be me, a recent arrival, and not DP Andrij Parekh who needs to adjust his light levels.] I know independent filmmakers prefer to leave out the expository stuff that the studios drown in, but I find the hinting as to what's been left out equally frustrating.

That all said, Half Nelson is uncommonly humanistic, and another showcase for its lead. Gosling is reaching the point where he'll be asked to put on superhero gear, for tremendous sums of money, and become another run-of-the-mill entertainer. Long may he resist.

No comments: