Dan Dunne, the protagonist of Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson, perpetually wears the sheepish grin of a little boy caught with his hand in the candy jar. Unfortunately, the kind of candy Dunne favors is the kind that goes up his nose or into his crack pipe.
What makes Dunne's situation particularly precarious is that he's a history teacher and girls' basketball coach in an inner-city Brooklyn middle school, and the slightest intimation of his crack habit will cost him his place in society forever. In the opening scenes of Half Nelson, co-written by Fleck and producer-editor Anna Boden, Dunne in the classroom is filled with the energy and idealism he lacks in his personal life. Schooled in radical politics at his parents' knees, Dunne uses Hegelian-Marxian dialectics, the theory of opposing forces in history, to try and rouse the interest of his students. (As one conversation toward the middle of the film demonstrates, the residents of the neighborhood don't know or care about the difference between Hegel and L. Ron Hubbard.)
Dunne's students dutifully repeat his lessons on Attica, Allende and the march on Selma, but their eyes wander out the window or toward the door. Only Drey, Dunne's brightest, most admiring pupil and the star of the girls' basketball team, seems to get his message. The situation stays on an even keel until the night Drey finds Dunne hiding in a stall in the girls' restroom, crack pipe in hand.
Drey is disappointed, but not all that surprised; all her life, drugs have taken over everything and everyone. Her brother is in jail for dealing, and Frank, the local kingpin, gives the family money every week in exchange for Drey's brother keeping his mouth shut. Even so, the money has strings attached; Frank expects Drey to come and work for him.
The rest of Half Nelson depicts both Dunne's slide downhill and his faltering battle to save Drey from Frank. It's hard to assert any moral authority over the drug dealer who's supplying you, particularly when the dealer is a stronger personality and—at least outwardly—a nicer, more stand-up guy. (While Frank takes Drey out for milkshakes, Dunne's misbehavior escalates from hurling basketballs at referees to attempted date rape.) In his big confrontation scene with Frank, Dunne is reduced to throwing up his hands and crying, "I don't know, I don't know!" He ends by accepting Frank's offer of a drink.
With the help of cinematographer Andrij Parikh's jittery camera, Fleck and Boden create a memorable vision of urban hell comparable with such Neo-Realist classics as Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief. Also helping them enormously are the compelling performances of the ensemble cast, particularly Ryan Gosling as Dunne, Shareeka Epps as Drey and Anthony Mackie as Frank. The penultimate scene between Dunne and Drey is full of the heartbreaking irony to which the story seems inevitably to lead. Fleck and Boden, however, give them a final, delicate scene together that hands both a fragile wand of hope. Half Nelson is a film that declares its bedrock belief in civilization and in human goodness, even as it depicts the frailty of some of those who represent them. All that is needed for civilization to take root, the final scene tells us, is for two people of good will to agree to believe in it.
It's bad enough when your teacher smokes crack. What happens when your grandfather smokes heroin? That's the question asked by Little Miss Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' debut feature. The film begins by testing the limits of the Quirky-Dysfunctional Family Comedy to a degree unplumbed even by The Squid and the Whale. By its end, however, it has become an unexpectedly moving paean to familial love, as well as one of the most screamingly, roll-in-the-aisles funny movies of the past decade.
Michael Arndt's screenplay sounds like a direct theft from RV and National Lampoon's Vacation: the six members of the Hoover family pile into a decrepit VW bus to make the 800-mile trek from New Mexico to California so that eight-year-old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) can compete in the "Little Miss Sunshine" beauty pageant. Olive is a normal, cheerful little girl, and mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) also is fairly normal, though she's quickly losing patience at being the family's overworked sole breadwinner. The rest of the family breaks the needle on the Wack Meter. Besides the aforementioned heroin-smoking grandpa (Alan Arkin), there's dad Richard (Greg Kinnear), an aspiring self-help guru who plays to audiences in the single digits and whose agent won't return his calls; brother Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he can leave home to become a test pilot; and Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), "the nation's number-one Proust scholar," who has turned suicidal after losing tenure, a McArthur "genius grant" and his gay lover to his underling in the French Department.
All of these characters have already received bruising insults to the ego at the time the film starts, and during its course each one receives a final, crushing blow—in one case, with extreme prejudice. Yet the film always remains funny and buoyant, giving sorrow its due but also reaffirming the basic goodness of life. Dayton, Faris and Arndt are careful to give all the members of the Hoover family their full humanity, which comes to the fore as they deal with brutal motorcycle cops, incompetent grief counselors and malevolent pageant directors who turn sweet little girls into simpering waxworks. (The pageant is even more disastrous than the audience might expect, thanks to Grandpa's choreography of Olive's final dance number. Yet it also provides the last application of glue to the Hoover family's bond.)
The true genius of Little Miss Sunshine, however, is in the casting. It is impossible to overpraise the individual performances of the six principal cast members, or their seamless ensemble work. I have to admit a serious predilection for Alan Arkin (whose performance in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been one of my favorites for nearly 40 years), but that is to take nothing away from the brilliance of the other five. Carell, in particular, displays a gentle comic wistfulness that expands significantly on his goofier performances in such films as The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Of course, the linchpin of Little Miss Sunshine is Olive, played by the preternaturally talented Breslin. It is Olive's joy and optimism that keep the rest of her family going, and it is their mutual love for her that helps them realize their love for each other. At the end of the trip, they are bound together in a way they couldn't have begun to imagine at the beginning. Through all the wackiness and turmoil of Little Miss Sunshine, Dayton and Faris make their point, clearly and truly: the people who drive you crazy may also save your life.
On Sept. 14-21 in Washington, D.C., aspiring Ryan Flecks, Jonathan Daytons and Valerie Farises from eight countries competed in the third annual "DC Shorts" Film Festival sponsored by the DC Film Alliance. Founder-director Jon Gann and his staff selected 94 films for the competition from more than 500 entries, and their choices were screened for the public at the Landmark E Street Theater and the Canadian Embassy.
The competition films that I saw—nearly 40 in all—varied substantially in length (30 seconds to about 25 minutes), style, ambition and quality. Nearly all, however, contained something to recommend. Some had a scrappy, Hey-Kids-Let's-Make-a-Movie freshness that overrode any technical roughness. Rob Raffety's "Hill Rats," about the impossible life of a staff director for a zero-IQ Republican congresswoman, had a raunchy good humor any true Washingtonian (and quite a few from outside the Beltway) could appreciate. Gayle Knutson's "If There Were No Lutherans…Would There Still Be Green
?" was a crowd-pleasing documentary about a small-town Minnesota pastor who becomes the hit of the community through his tongue-in-cheek churchyard signs. ("CAN'T SLEEP?" one typical sign reads. "OUR PASTOR'S SERMONS NOW ON TAPE.") Mike DeChant and Doug Gritzmacher's "Bone Mixers" (which won the Best Local Film award) was a documentary about a group of friends—cutting wildly and delightfully across age and ethnic barriers—who meet every Wednesday night for a rowdy game of dominoes.
Other shorts rivaled Hollywood productions in their polish. Brett Eichenberger's "The Leeward Tide," a poetic ghost story about an old fisherman and his lost love, was notable for the exquisite seascapes captured by cinematographer Patrick Neary. Max Bartoli's "Ignotus," about a medieval Italian knight falsely accused of blasphemy, had more epic sweep in its 15 minutes than some big-budget epics muster in two hours.
The best festivals of short films delight us with their sheer eclecticism, as three standout films at DC Shorts demonstrated. Clay Walker's "The Cole Nobody Knows" was a fascinating portrait of singer-pianist Freddy Cole, Nat "King" Cole's kid brother, who in his seventies has established himself as a formidable talent in his own right. David Chai's "Fumi and the Bad Luck Foot" was a sweet, pastel-hued cartoon about a little girl who turns her misfortune in life to her advantage. Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall's "Poodle Samizdat" was a mind-blowing, sometimes shocking piece of free-form computer animation that was outsider filmmaking at its best.
One thing that really impressed me about this year's DC Shorts was the profusion and consistent excellence of the comedy entries. After seeing such films as Eben Kostbar's "Karma Café," David Dean Bottrell's "Available Men,"
Douglas Horn's "Full Disclosure," Nick Poppy's "Zombie-American" (co-written by and starring The Daily Show's Ed Helms), Stuart Rogers' "Dirty Mary" (Festival Director's Favorite award) and Michael Wohl's "Artistic License" (Filmmakers' Favorite award), any viewer would have to conclude that the future of American film comedy is in safe hands. (A compilation of these films alone, placed in general exhibition, would be a significant art-house hit.)
My favorite film in the festival, however, was "Lucky," a poignant Neo-Realist short by South African filmmaker Avie Luthra. It could be argued that the story—about the bond that develops between an elderly, bigoted Indian woman and a little Zulu boy who has lost his mother to AIDS—ends just as it starts to get going. What Luthra captures on screen, however, is so beautiful, pure and true that I can't imagine the audience that wouldn't respond to it. I think of it as a wonderful short story that would have made a fine novel.
As usual at film festivals, many of the filmmakers appeared at Q&A sessions after the screenings, and it was both fun and enlightening to hear their litany of struggle, snafu and triumph. The films at DC Shorts cost on average about $30,000 to $60,000 to make, and just try getting money like that to make a short film with no chance of a commercial run. One of the most revealing comments on keeping costs down was from first-time director Emily Skelton: "All the actors were volunteers," she said, "and I bribed them with beer." Sounds like a plan to me.