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Up From the Ashes

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Now, World Trade Center: That’s a conventional heroism saga. And it raises an important question: Is reframing 9/11 in terms of individual stories of courage a necessary stage in our collective healing or a denial of the deeper and more enduring ramifications of that day? All I know is that Oliver Stone has picked a funny time to be apolitical.

Downbeat as it is, Half Nelson is a genuinely inspirational film—a terrifically compelling character study and a tricky exploration of the links (and busted links) between the personal and the political. Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a flamboyant ­inner-city junior-high-school teacher whose drug addiction—like his disillusion—is snowballing. In class, he hammers home a dialectical view of historical change, championing men and women who dared to stand up against systemic injustice. Then, after dismissing his (inept) girls’ basketball team, he smokes crack in a locker-room stall, where he’s discovered by one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps). The girl, whose estranged father never arrived to pick her up, is puzzled to see her teacher semi-stuporous—and yet her face settles quickly into something harder. For her, this is the way of the world.

A young African-American girl who rescues her white teacher while he rescues her: The heart-warmer formula dangles right before our eyes, like a rope ladder to la-la land. But not once do the director, Ryan Fleck, and co-screenwriter, Anna Boden, take the easy way out. Half Nelson is rooted in a world in which people rarely save themselves or anyone else, even when they know the same Hollywood formulas we do.

As he proved in The Believer, Gosling has the stuff to be a major actor. Here, he flashes an awful lot of aren’t-I-adorable movie-star grins—except the act meshes perfectly with the character, who uses his adorableness to keep the world at bay. ­Gosling’s sense of proportion is uncanny; in this role he’s light, even breezy, but so raw you can read every twitch of his wiry frame. Much of Epps’s performance consists of watching him, and her face is so fascinating that we begin to watch her in the same way—watching to see how much of herself Drey will decide to reveal. It’s the best kind of drama—dialectical on the outside and the inside.

Another multiracial indie film, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Quinceañera, has a setting, L.A.’s Echo Park, that deprives us of our bearings: a mix of close-knit Mexican-American clans (who initiate their 15-year-old daughters into womanhood with a religious quinceañera ceremony) and wealthier whites who’ve arrived in the wake of gentrification. For Carlos (Jesse Garcia), living with his elderly great-uncle after his parents ejected him for his (unconsummated) homosexuality, gentrification is a mixed blessing. His uncle’s gay landlords regard him as studly dark meat and initiate him into the fold, but their economic privileges also enable them to destroy his surrogate family—which includes a cousin (Emily Rios) banished from her parents’ house after getting pregnant. The resolution to the girl’s problem is a mite tidy, but the movie does a good job of capturing how ostracism and liberation are sides of the same spinning coin.

World Trade Center
Directed by Oliver Stone. Paramount. PG-13.

Half Nelson
Directed by Ryan Fleck. Thinkfilm. R.

Quinceañera
Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Sony Pictures Classics. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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