Thursday, April 20, 2006

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006, Day 1: Half Nelson

My second experience attending a film festival as a member of the recognized media is thus far a bit smoother than the first: The IFFB organizers got me a pass quickly, even though I only arrived about 20-25 minutes before Half Nelson was scheduled to start. Sure, it was a blank one, but handled much more quickly than a similar situation was at Fantasia (that the people at the desk and I spoke the same primary language was probably immensely helpful). It was also a huge difference from my attempt to attend the IFFB's opening night show last year: Mingling in the Somerville Theater lobby, having people come up and ask if I need anything when they saw the badge around my neck, as opposed to standing in the rain for an hour only to be told that I wasn't getting tickets.

Yes, I resented the people with passes last year. I'm a total hypocrite.

Half Nelson wound up being a pretty good way to start the festival. It's kind of documentary-style, with us just sort of meeting and following the characters, not worrying about plot twists or a whole lot of foreshadowing. The filmmakers have a documentary background - they've been to IFFB with both documentary shorts and features before - so this is probably natural for them.

Actaully, it's kind of amusing - this is the fourth IFFB, and filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have come with a documentary short, a narrative short, a documentary feature, and a narrative feature. I think their options for next year are doing something with animation, a lecture, or a midnight movie. They also did an entertaining Q&A - Fleck's got a great, dry sense of humor, and they played off their sixteen-year-old star very well. Ms. Boden's from Newton, and I think their local ties and history with the festival made for a cool, laid-back opening night.

This could be a very fun festival; I can't remember going to one that handed out raffle tickets on the way into the theater before. I just hope I can escape from the day job early enough for two movies tonight.

Half Nelson

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 April 2006 at Somerville Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

Movies about great teachers aren't unusual; they're almost standards in their way. Nearly as common are movies about great students. Often they're the same movie, with the two having a symbiotic relationship, keeping each other from being swallowed up by the pressures inside and outside the school. Half Nelson is that kind of movie, but it avoids being saccharine. Audiences may consider it inspirational, but in a very low-key way.

Our teacher is Daniel Dunne (Ryan Gosling); a white man teaching American History at a primarily black middle school in Brooklyn. He's not quite one of the great teachers, but he tries - he's writing a book, and he makes an effort to get his students to understand what history is and why it's worth studying rather than just filling them with the facts that will be on standardized tests. He also coaches the girl's JV basketball team, and both the team and his history class include Drey (Shareeka Epps), a thirteen year-old girl whose older brother is in jail, whose whose mother works long hours, and whose father is frustratingly absent. She's caught the interest of Frank (Anthony Mackie), a drug dealer who had previously recruited her older brother Mike. Oh, and speaking of drugs? Dunne's got a big problem with the crack; Drey finds him all but passed out in the locker room after the game.

Read the rest at HBS.

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