Beyond the Multiplex

Gritty Social Realism week brings two of the year's best movies: The much celebrated "Half Nelson" and a passionate, Oscar-worthy German film.

Published August 24, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

It's Gritty Social Realism week here on the indie-film beat -- and, I know, it seems like it's that week almost every week. But with crimson leaves, apple cider and awards-show gossip right around the corner, even independent distributors are starting to trot out their big fall-season show horses. These days, those tend to be moody, serious-minded pictures with a sociological bent and a tragic sensibility. There may be some larger questions to raise about why indie filmmakers and audiences seem averse to fantasy and whimsy (even, lately, to comedy), but this week brings us two of the year's best films, both in GSR mode, so there's no point complaining.

I skipped a screening of "Half Nelson" when it opened in New York two weeks ago, despite glowing advance word on Ryan Gosling's performance. It was a busy week, and I'm intensely allergic to inspirational-teacher flicks. I suspected we were dealing with a new-generation remake of "To Sir With Love" or "Dead Poets Society" or (still worse) "Music of the Heart." Then Kevin Smith went on TV in place of the ailing Roger Ebert (we miss you, Rog! Feel better!) and said "Half Nelson" was the best film of the decade. Other critics were almost as enthusiastic, and I began to wonder whether I had miscalculated.

Boy, howdy. In this case, you should believe the hype. Gosling is indeed amazing as a bewildered, depressed New York schoolteacher who is slipping into dire drug addiction; it's exactly the kind of star turn in a smaller film that Academy voters could (and should) notice. (Next month brings us Maggie Gyllenhaal's similarly impressive turn as a semi-recovering addict in "Sherrybaby.") But "Half Nelson" is bigger than its star. It's a complex and defiant fable of American life run just slightly off the rails, delivering all the impact of "Crash" without the phony-baloney paradoxes or brick-in-the-face message delivery.

If there was any justice in the movie world, Turkish-born Yilmaz Arslan's extraordinary drama "Fratricide," following a grisly blood feud between Kurdish and Turkish immigrants in Germany, would also be an Oscar contender. Somehow I doubt that German film authorities will nominate a picture that depicts their nation as a soulless bureaucratic state that reduces new immigrants to brutality. Be that as it may, "Fratricide" marks Arslan as one of Europe's hottest young talents, drawing simultaneously on the film traditions of America, Western Europe and the Middle East.

If "Princesas," a drama about the unlikely friendship between a pair of Madrid prostitutes, from the Spanish director Fernando León de Aranoa, is half a notch below those two movies, it'd still be my top pick most other weeks of the year. Yes, these are whores with hearts of gold, but I got past the cornball factor pretty fast. Candela Peña (of Pedro Almodóvar's "All About My Mother") is sensational in the leading role, and the film is big-hearted, poetic, sweet, sad and romantic.

That leaves only "The Quiet," an implausible and sadistic little family-secrets film from director Jamie Babbit (she made the lesbian-themed teen comedy "But I'm a Cheerleader"). This definitely doesn't belong to the GSR genre, despite a few nods at depicting high-school society; it's more like LGT (Lurid Gothic Trash). Babbit is skilled at creating atmosphere and mood, all of it creepy or sodden, and actresses Elisha Cuthbert and Camilla Belle put their hearts into their roles, which are, unfortunately, encased in a sleazoid TV movie of the week tarted up in art-school clothes.

"Half Nelson": It takes a village -- a village of crackheads and drug dealers
"One thing does not make a man," Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) tells Dray (Shareeka Epps), as he's driving her home after school. Dan is the hip, young, white seventh-grade history teacher at Dray's virtually all-black junior high school in Brooklyn, N.Y. Dray is his prize student and the best player on the girls basketball team he coaches.

Sounds like conventional wisdom being delivered, right? A person of superior wisdom -- but one who's down with the kids -- imparting some sage advice. Like, look deep into people, man. Don't judge a book by its cover, etc. But what Dan is actually talking about is the fact that Dray has discovered him in a bathroom stall in the girls' locker room, curled up in the fetal position on a toilet, with a crack pipe clutched in his hand. That one thing, Dan insists, does not define him.

Furthermore, he's right. Maybe the most radical thing about "Half Nelson," a movie that turns the tired schoolteacher genre inside out, is its insistence that the clichés that govern so much of American society are meaningless. Dan is a massive fuck-up. He's a habitual coke user who's sliding into an unmanageable combination of depression and crack addiction. He comes to school hung over, unshaven and looking like total crap almost every day of the week. Most of his "relationships" with women are one-night bar pickups. After he goes out with Isabel (Monique Gabriela Curnen), an attractive fellow teacher who really likes him, he first freezes her out and then shows up at her house, unannounced and dead drunk, at 2:30 a.m. His friendship with Dray, who is 13 years old, doesn't quite cross the line of propriety -- but the idea has clearly entered his mind.

But Dan is a fuck-up who's also an excellent, even inspirational, history teacher. He's chucked out the textbooks and encourages his kids to understand history as a process of dynamic change, as an infinite set of collisions between competing forces. He's even taught them the word "dialectics." Director Ryan Fleck (who co-wrote the screenplay with his partner, Anna Boden, also the editor and co-producer) breaks up the action of "Half Nelson" with segments in which Dan's students deliver mini-reports on signal events of 20th century American history: Brown v. Board of Education, the Attica revolt, the Free Speech Movement, the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.

Of course that sounds preachy, in theory, but somehow it isn't in practice. Part of the (ahem!) dialectic at work in "Half Nelson" is that the film's radical and even angry political message is delivered through characters who cannot be classified as good or evil and who cannot escape their own contradictions. There's considerable hilarity amid the squalor and rage, as when Dan delivers a lengthy monologue about Bush, Saddam, the nonexistent WMD and the gullibility of the American public -- all to some nameless chick in a crack-house motel, who couldn't possibly give a crap. (There's also a knock-knock joke that still has me giggling.)

Dan is competing for influence over Dray with a mysterious family friend named Frank (played by the terrific Anthony Mackie), who is clearly the neighborhood's leading drug dealer. Like almost everything in "Half Nelson," this doesn't go where you think it's going. After all, which of these guys is a better role model, or a better protector? Frank is a hardworking businessman who provides for his family. He doesn't do drugs and seems to have a stable home life. His concern for Dray's welfare never seems fake or manipulative. As he observes, Dan is a basehead, and baseheads are untrustworthy people who have no friends. If we're not going to judge Dan's worth as a human being by his increasingly screwed-up behavior, why should we judge Frank's based on his occupation?

If this film sounds like "Crash" made by a cadre of Marxists, that might not be far off the mark. (The morning after their big date, Isabel scrutinizes the books on Dan's shelves and asks, "Are you a communist?") If so, they're really smart Marxists who write terrific characters. Newcomer Shareeka Epps sometimes seems overshadowed by Gosling and Mackie's charismatic performances, but she holds the center of the picture stoically, playing Dray as a girl who sees herself, with some justification, as more focused and mature than the perennially distracted grown-ups around her. The fine supporting cast features Tina Holmes as Dan's 12-step ex, and Jay O. Sanders as his drink-sodden, racist dad.

If "Half Nelson" generates any significant national audience -- it begins to expand this week -- it will make an irresistible target for the Bill O'Reillys and Sean Hannitys of the world, both for its obvious left-wing slant and for its heretical notion that drug dealers and drug addicts are not soulless demons but complicated, worthwhile human beings. One can only hope. With or without right-wing bile, see this when it comes to your town. If a smarter, more heartfelt or more challenging American film comes out between now and Christmas, I'll be shocked.

"Half Nelson" is now playing in New York, and opens Aug. 25 in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, with other cities to follow.

"Fratricide": The Turkish-Kurdish war goes to Germany, by way of Peckinpah and Pasolini
In these days of European unease, Yilmaz Arslan's bloody tale of Turks and Kurds fighting a deadly feud on the streets of an unidentified German city has attracted understandable attention on that continent for its dark depiction of immigrant life. But the Turkish-born Arslan (who himself came to Germany at age 8) is an artist, and an extremely talented one; he isn't preaching a specific social gospel.

Arslan's protagonist, a teenage Kurdish refugee named Azad (Erdal Celik), erupts in anger at a self-appointed leader of his community who wants to turn a family tragedy into political capital. She's a scavenger, a parasite, he tells her. "What makes you think we're any better than the Chinese or the Africans or any other assholes?" he demands. Indeed, despite its contemporary setting "Fratricide" is a timeless yarn of violence and revenge, weaving together an ancient Kurdish folk tale with a story about Mercedes limos, pit bulls and hardscrabble immigrants.

Azad has come to Germany from a remote Kurdish village in Turkey after his brother, Semo (Nurettin Celik), sends home a pile of crisp $100 bills. No one back home knows that Semo is a ruthless and violent pimp who's made his money by turning young Eastern European girls out as truck-stop hookers. Azad wants nothing to do with him, and lives in an immigrant youth hostel while cutting hair illegally in the filthy men's room of a Kurdish restaurant. There he takes a much younger boy, Ibo (Xewat Gectan), under his wing. In Arslan's complicated, backward-and-forward chronology, we eventually learn that Ibo's parents have been wrongfully killed, in one of the Turkish government's periodic purges of suspected Kurdish militants.

"Fratricide" is dedicated to the late Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose once massive influence seems almost invisible today. Arslan shares Pasolini's romantic passion for the downtrodden and the forgotten, and he captures Azad and Ibo's struggle to survive (Erdal Celik and Gectan are both remarkable, although neither is a trained actor) with tenderness and purified intensity. They are determined to work hard, save money, and transcend what they see as the depravity and corruption around them. But like any folk-tale heroes in a new land, they face unforeseen danger.

A random encounter with a couple of second-generation Turkish-German thugs on a subway train, and the subsequent intervention of the sinister Semo, leads to a shocking maelstrom of violence from which Azad and Ibo can't escape. Europeans may well feel aggrieved by the suggestion that the misfortune of being born in Germany has rendered kids like Ahmet (Oral Uyan) and Zeki (Bulent Buyukasik) into brutal skinhead assholes. I'm not sure that's Arslan's point; "Fratricide" is a story about dislocation and cultural deracination, but as Azad's tirade suggests, it could be set among almost any displaced group anywhere in the world.

This film is made with a remarkable command of the medium and a sense of connection to cinema history. The violence is confrontational and even horrifying, in the tradition of both Pasolini and Sam Peckinpah, and the final scene refers directly to the ending of "Midnight Cowboy" (another masterwork about migration and loneliness). Fans of Iranian film, or the Russian and Eastern European tradition of fairy-tale realism, will also detect those influences, but "Fratricide" is never affected or false. It's a heartbreaking, bloody, wistful work from an important young filmmaker.

"Fratricide" is now playing at Film Forum in New York. Other engagements, and DVD release, will follow.

Fast forward: "Princesas" work the mean streets of Madrid; deaf girl joins crazy family in "The Quiet"
There's a certain brassy sentimentality that comes with high-level Spanish filmmaking. Even Pedro Almodóvar possesses it; he's just refined it to the point of aesthetic perfection. Fernando León de Aranoa's film "Princesas," an award- winning tale of friendship between two rival Madrid hookers, has it in spades. You can either take it or you can't. Our heroine is named Caye (Candela Peña), which, not accidentally, is pronounced the same as "calle," the word for street. The soundtrack is full of Spanish guitar-pop songs (by Manu Chau) belaboring this obvious pun: Caye walks the calles, her heart is in the calle, etc.

Get through that, and the moments when writer-director Aranoa stops the film in its tracks so Caye can deliver profound meditations about love or eternity or the prodigious sensitivity of princesses (see the title), and what you've otherwise got is heartfelt and impressive social melodrama. Peña, who has already won the Goya (the Spanish Oscar) for this role, is undeniably terrific. Caye is no cartoon hooker; she's skinny and a little worried-looking, with stringy hair, a big Iberian nose and small breasts (as she informs everyone, she's saving up for bigger ones). Her eyes are the only part of her that's alarmingly beautiful, which makes you feel better about her customers. At least they're not going for the obvious.

Zulema (Micaela Nevárez, a Puerto Rican actress who lives in New York), on the other hand, is the obvious. A stacked, honey-skinned Dominican beauty with cascading dark ringlets of hair, she represents a torrent of immigrant girls who are driving down prices for Caye and her Spanish colleagues. The difference is even defined by location; Caye and her friends work out of a beauty shop on a central Madrid plaza, while Zulema and the other Caribbean, African or Eastern European women work the square itself.

Zulema lives in Caye's apartment building, plays her music too loud and steals Caye's clients. Imbibing the casual racism of her friends, Caye dislikes her on sight. Then she finds the girl half-conscious in her shower, beaten and bleeding, and takes her to the hospital. They're drawn to each other by their different but shared loneliness: Caye is a middle-class woman who views her occupation as temporary, but is exiled from her family by shame; Zulema is an illegal immigrant with a 5-year-old son back in the Dominican.

"Princesas" may be a sentimental film, but Aranoa portrays Caye and Zulema's lives with sharp-eyed clarity, neither judging nor endorsing them. Both women have a jaundiced view of love and sex but turn out to be hopeless romantics underneath it all. Caye flips head over heels for a nerdy-but-handsome computer programmer, knowing exactly how it will end. Zulema dates a dreamboat college student, but can't extricate herself from a violent, abusive relationship with a powerful man who says he can get her legalized. Neither of these women really expects a happy ending, and they don't get one. But the lusty, passionate, colorful friendship they share is its own reward. (Now playing at the IFC Center in New York. Opens Sept. 1 in Los Angeles; Sept. 22 in Palm Springs, Calif., and Salt Lake City; Oct. 6 in Atlanta; Oct. 8 in Nashville; Oct. 20 in Hartford, Conn.; and Oct. 27 in Denver, with more cities to follow.)

There's nothing wrong with having a movie narrated by a deaf character, I suppose. Many deaf people can speak, and we are told that Dot (Camilla Belle), the androgynous teen who winds up, unfortunately for her and everyone else, in the Deer family's suburban Connecticut household in "The Quiet," could hear until some unexplained event rendered her deaf as a kid.

But it's typical of this lugubrious and murky picture that we never know what's going on with all the leaden, pseudo-profound voice-over narration. Is this Dot's internal monologue? (Do deaf people speak to themselves in words, exactly?) Is she speaking to us from the future or the past, or from some alternate metafictional plane of reality? Or is "The Quiet" such a load of indecipherable hokum that it doesn't matter? Arguably, any movie with this much narration is in trouble to begin with, whether the narrator is deaf, blind or a walrus from Neptune.

Speaking of aliens, the Deer family's daughter, Nina (Elisha Cuthbert,) is a bitchy, vixenish cheerleader who rules her school with an even more evil friend (Katy Mixon) but seems curiously uninterested in boys. Her hulking dad (Martin Donovan) always seems to be hovering around her, and her horror-show mom (Edie Falco) is a pill-popper who passes out by 9 p.m, every night. If you haven't figured out this family's so-called dark secret yet, the one Dot's arrival brings to the surface because it's so dark and so secret and she's so deaf and so weird, then you get an F in Creepy Gothic Plots.

Director Jamie Babbit has a certain gift for gloomy atmospherics that might work in a flat-out horror film. (There are faint, or more than faint, overtones of "Carrie" here.) But "The Quiet" wobbles around between genres, a terrible example of what can happen when the wrong sets of talented people get together. It isn't convincing as talky psychological realism or as high-school satire or as ghoulish forbidden melodrama, although Belle and Cuthbert have their best and creepiest moments in that mode.

I will decline to fall into the trap of suggesting that Babbit is a man-hater because she portrays husbands and boyfriends as monsters. Everyone in this pointless, cruel and misanthropic film is a monster. Edie Falco should sue herself for agreeing to play the horrifyingly caricatured mom role. At least nobody ever turns on the lights in the Deer household, so like everybody else who made the mistake of appearing herein, she can deny it in two years. (Opens nationwide Aug. 25.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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