Thursday, March 30, 2006

New Directors/New Films, Day 1

Half Nelson

For the past 35 years, spring in New York is usually announced by the New Directors/ New Films series that presents undiscovered or about-to-be-discovered filmmakers from all over the world. For the next six days, Thessa Mooij reports from the screening rooms of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art.

New York City likes to pound its puffed-up chest, fancying itself the capital of the world. But a closer look at the Big Apple's creative output shows a slightly conservative city that likes its modern art to be colourful, pictorial and illustrative; easy on the eye and the brain cells. It takes its music, fashion and design cues from London and Tokyo before watering them down and proclaiming them as their own. As for film, the city's independent filmmakers have definitely suffered from a financing blow after 9/11.

Since films take years to make - especially the good ones - it has taken a while for indie talent to return to the big screen in any significant numbers. The New Directors/New Films series shows a remarkable renaissance of high quality independent films with the city's stamp on them. The 35-year old series is an understated affair by New York's standards - presenting 25 features and five shorts - most of which do not have a distributor in the U.S. and are only screened during this programme. The curatorial choices are adventurous by New York standards, not relying on other festivals hits or hyped-up distribution acquisitions. The selection committee is well known for nurturing talent in the early stages by presenting remarkable short films and inviting some of these filmmakers to return with their first features.

This was the case with the series' opening film, Half Nelson, which was based on the short film Gowanus, Brooklyn that was shown in the programme two years ago. Written by director Ryan Fleck and producer Anna Boden, the film maps out the rough-and-tumble neighbourhood of Gowanus Canal. Surrounded by heavily gentrified brownstone Brooklyn, this semi-industrial area mixes rough-and-tumble kids from the projects and young hipsters who can't afford the brownstones.

Dan is caught in the middle of this: junior high school teacher by day, coke-sniffing ladies man by night. The magnetically talented actor Ryan Gosling gets a chance to play the entire spectrum from trying to bridge gaping racial gaps to scoring hard drugs from a family friend of his favourite student Drey. who sees her crush on him evaporate with the sweet smoke coming out of his crack pipe.

Too often, American films, even the indies, opt for a clear-cut battle between right and wrong, following by a soothing redemption that leaves no loose ends untied. Half Nelson (a wrestling term for keeping someone in control, but not pinning them down) is surprisingly fluid in its statements, withholding judgment as much as it can. The film is not about drugs or sex, but about the fragile bond between a charismatic, but weak teacher and a talented student looking for a role model. It's a delight to see Ryan Gosling sparring with teenage actress Shareeka Epps, who played the role of Drey in the preceding short film. She can certainly hold her own with her mix of vulnerability and scowling contempt.

The only false note comes from Fleck's depiction of Dan's parents as wine guzzling, washed out '60s radicals. There is a cowardly hint at a difficulty father-son relationship, but seeing his family in action does nothing to explain his need for a drug induced haze. Considering the non-judgmental tone of the film, it would have been more consistent to let Dan be himself, in the present, without explaining his background or history. But overall, this is an impressive debut, both for the filmmakers and for Shareeka Epps.

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