MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Two years ago a 19 minute movie about a middle school student and a troubled teacher won the best short film award at the Sundance Film Festival. Then just a few months ago an expanded version of the story turned heads at Sundance again, this time as a full-length feature. Well today that feature film, Half Nelson, opens in New York and Los Angeles.
Bob Mondello says if there is any justice in Hollywood it will jump start the careers of everyone involved.
BOB MONDELLO: Dan Dunne seems like the history teacher we all wish we'd had. As played by Ryan Gosling, Dan's a guy who knows how to use ideas to energize a room full of bored 13-year-olds. He'll arm wrestle with a student to demonstrate how history is a clash of opposites. And he'll draw life lessons out of a fiery speech about bringing the machine to its knees.
(SOUNDBITE OF HALF NELSON)
RYAN GOSLING: (As Dan Dunne) You're saying this machine is keeping me down. Well what is that? What keeps us from being free? Miss Drey?
Unidentified Woman #1: Prisons.
GOSLING: Absolutely, prisons. Okay, prisons are definitely a part of it. What else?
Unidentified Man: White.
GOSLING: White is definitely a part of it. The man.
Woman #1: The school.
GOSLING: The school. Exactly. The whole - the whole education system is part of the machine. What else?
Unidentified Woman #2: Aren't you the machine then?
GOSLING: Oh no you didn't. What'd you say?
Woman #2: Aren't you the machine?
GOSLING: You're saying I'm the machine?
Woman #2: Yeah. You're white, you're part of the school.
GOSLING: Oh yeah I guess you got a point.
MONDELLO: The Brooklyn middle school where Dan teaches has a lot of at risk kids. One of them is Drey, the girl who said prisons when Dan asked what keeps people down. Her brother is doing time for drug dealing which means she's alone a lot. A smart, observant latch key kid trying hard to fly right. I think you know where this inspirational teacher's saga must be headed. Well, think again. As Drey does when she finds her teacher in the locker room after he's coached her basketball game.
(SOUNDBITE OF HALF NELSON)
Woman #1: Somebody in there?
MONDELLO: His eyes glassy, a crack pipe in his hand.
Woman #1: I'm sorry.
GOSLING: It's okay. You didn't do anything.
MONDELLO: He collapses on the floor and some reflex tells him he should reassure her.
GOSLING: It's okay. I'm fine. I'm sorry. Can you help me up? Are you okay?
Woman #1: Yeah.
GOSLING: Okay. Good. Just don't go okay? Just for a minute.
MONDELLO: Drey had come in looking for a ride home and when Dan finally pulls himself together he gives it to her, still determined to be protective, to do good. But this is one white knight who's in now shape to perform the rescues that will be demanded of him. If the history Dan teaches is a clash of opposites so is Half Nelson, a breath catchingly(ph) smart movie that takes a standard crusading teacher narrative and turns it so inside-out that you think you're watching a whole new genre.
First time director Ryan Fleck may seem to be matching up a smart kid who gets it and smart adults who often don't but nothing is as simple as black and white in this story, not even race. As for performances, Ryan Gosling's self destructive teacher is easily the year's most mesmerizing character study. And he's hardly the only reason to see this film. Shereeka Epps anchors her scenes as Drey with a self-possession way beyond her years.
And then there's the dialectic itself, the clash of opposites that allows Half Nelson, a low-budget, independent film with an unknown director, to wrestle with contradictions of politics, history and race that would confound a social scientist. Just in time too with school starting up again in three weeks.
I'm Bob Mondello.