what i'm watching: half nelson, shattered glass

I saw a very good movie last night: "Half Nelson", written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and directed by Fleck. Ryan Gosling plays a teacher in a low-income neighbourhood in Brooklyn, and Shareeka Epps makes a stunning feature debut as a student who befriends him.

"Half Nelson" is not cut from the generic teacher-inspires-students template. Although the teacher is unconventional - he teaches history from a decidedly Howard Zinn point of view - he is also a drug addict.

Epps' character has two possible father-figures in her life. One is an African-American man from her neighbourhood, who treats her with respect, but who is a drug dealer. Her brother is already in prison for being part of this man's operation. The other is white, seemingly respectable - her teacher and her basketball coach. But he's an addict, who treats her badly, as addicts do.

Both performances are very understated, and the whole movie is small and restrained. There are no giant epiphanies. No students catapult from their impoverished classroom to Harvard, and the addicted teacher doesn't finally get clean. But there's hope, or the possibility of hope. And some stellar acting.

We also recently saw "Shattered Glass," about Stephen Glass, the former writer for The New Republic (and many other prestigious publications) who turned out to be a con-man of sorts. More than half his articles, published over a three-year period, were either partially or completely fabricated.

This isn't a great movie; the acting is mediocre and there's a clunky back-story device that doesn't work at all. But it touches on several fascinations of mine: con artists, gamblers and especially compulsive liars - what motivates them, how they get away with it, how they flirt with exposure.

After seeing "Half Nelson," I realized these movies had something in common - both are about addiction.

Stephen Glass was addicted to the approval and admiration he won when his colleagues read his vivid, crackling stories. Like any other person with a gambling addiction, the more he got away with, the further he pushed. Being revealed as a fraud was inevitable, but he had painted himself into a corner; there was no place to go but forward, to ever more dangerous cons.

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