There has been a debate going on in the Filmspotting forums where I hang around, about the habit of playing the movie at double speed, which some forum dwellers have confessed they have.
“What’s the harm if it makes the movie more enjoyable?” say a few while others argue that it shows a lack of respect towards the film makers. My position is: do whatever you like, as long as you’re open about it in your reviews. Honesty and transparency works best in the long run.
In the name of transparency, I’ll right away admit that I had some issues with Half Nelson that might affected my view on it. The copy I saw didn’t only lack subtitles in my native tongue (Swedish); it lacked subtitles altogether.
For some movies this wouldn’t be any problem at all; being brought up in a country where don’t have the horrendous habit of dubbing movies, I’m reasonably good at English, especially if it’s fairly close to the BBC English I’ve been taught. But as soon as we move away from the upper-class tearooms into shadier environments, I get into trouble. Usually this can be solved. For instance I’m watching Mike Leigh’s movies, not with Swedish subtitles, because there are none, but with English subtitles intended to help people who have hearing difficulties. This works as a charm and I won’t miss a thing.
I’m afraid that the lack of subtitles probably had a negative impact on my experience of Half Nelson. There were a few times when I just couldn’t quite hear the dialogue and I’m pretty sure I missed some of the nuances because of this.
It wasn’t just some of the character’s street style accents that gave me a challenge; the entire movie is made like a non-commented documentary with a wobbly hand-held camera and mumbling actors. I may sound as if I’m making fun of it, but even if we’ve seen this manner over and over again in arty low-budget movies, I actually like it. Overused or not, shaky cameras give an authentic touch. But when the sound is just as shaky, it gets tough for people like me.
But even if I probably didn’t “get” everything (especially not the documentary clips about the civil rights movement that broke into the plot every now and then and really didn’t add anything to me), I basically liked this movie.
Ryan Gosling is brilliant as the want-to-change-the-world teacher on drugs, walking further and further down on a road towards self destruction. His budding friendship with one of his pupils could easily have turned into a cliché, something just too cheerful, sentimental and happy-ending to be believable. This never happens.
The film makers said in the interview in the extra material that they didn’t want to be another typical dark, edgy indie movie, but I’m afraid that this is exactly what it is. It’s not until towards the end that we can see a tiny glimpse of hope in the form of a rejection of a ride with the drug dealer and a well-needed shave for the teacher. That’s about as good as it gets. Still it’s enough for me. After all, compared to the previous film I saw, Naked, this was quite cheerful.
Half Nelson (Fleck, US, 2006) My rating: 4/5