If you're wondering about the future of American indie film, a good place to start would be with the creators of Half Nelson, a fierce little pic about shaggy junior high school teacher Dan Dunne (Canada's Ryan Gosling) who's equally in love with philosophy, his students and hard drugs. Ryan Fleck (director, co-writer) and Anna Boden (co-writer) recently made it on Filmmaker mag's list of the 25 New Faces Of Independent Film. They spoke with me days before the film opened in the U.S. to rapturous reviews.
Dan is pretty convincing as a drug addict. How well do you know that life?
Fleck: Um, it's hard to answer that without incriminating myself. I think we all know someone who's dealing with boundaries and addictions of one sort or another.
Is the film about a particular generation?
Fleck: Absolutely. I think there's a whole group of people in their 20s who are the children of parents who were politically active in the 1960s. They're aware of what's going on in the world but feel unable to effect any meaningful change. And I think that frustration has a lot to do with their self-destructive behaviour.
There's a lot of philosophy in the movie. Were there discussions about how much to include?
Boden: We worried most about how to realistically put the philosophy in the mouth of a teacher. Then it became all about how comfortable Ryan Gosling was understanding and articulating the ideas. He talked to Ryan Fleck's father - a lot of the philosophy in the film comes from him. His dad breaks dialectics down into the simplest of turns. You can see it on his Dialectics For Kids website, at http://home.igc.org/~venceremos/index.htm.
The film also doesn't shy away from being political.
Fleck: The major problem I have with most movies is that they have no political context. How can you make a movie today and not have characters talking about how Bush is fucking things up?
Was it hard to avoid those Dead Poets Society clichés?
Fleck: Yeah, we were aware of those inspirational teacher movies. But we also wanted to avoid the pitfalls of addiction dramas. So we tried to take detours, so just when you think you know what's happening next, well take you in a different direction.
How did Broken Social Scene get involved?
Fleck: Anna and I were putting these mix CDs together to listen to while we were writing. We ended up writing certain songs into certain scenes and cutting to their music. So then we just called them up and asked them to see the movie. We came up to Toronto, and they ended up liking it.
HALF NELSON (Ryan Fleck). 106 minutes. A Thinkfilm release. For venues and times see Movies, page 105. Rating: NNN
In The Believer, Murder By Numbers and The United States Of Leland, Ryan Gosling began to develop a specialty in unspeakably creepy teens, which makes the improbably romantic hit The Notebook the smartest move of his young career. It repositioned him as someone who could pull off "normal" characters.
That's important for Half Nelson, where he plays Dan Dunne, both a hard-working, idealistic young teacher and a crack addict.
Gosling's performance - and the complementary work of Shareeka Epps as Drey, the one student who knows his secret - is the anchor and great draw of Half Nelson, which arrives with several prizes from American film festivals.
Writer-director Ryan Fleck can't avoid the downward spiral of the drug addiction drama, but Gosling shows how Dan's energetic devotion to his mostly black students and his despairing slide into addiction are the opposing sides of a single coin.
It's an intimate film - essentially a three-character battle between Dan, Drey and the neighbourhood dealer (Anthony Mackie), who's dismissive of the teacher's worries over his students. Since its principal virtues are script and performance, it probably won't lose much on DVD.