Spout Mavens Disc #14, Part 2 of 13: Shorts! Volume 3 - Gowanus, Brooklyn (2003)

Director: Ryan Fleck
19 value-soaked minutes, color
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

Half Nelson? What is that? A documentary about only one of Ricky Nelson’s offspring in a particularly ridiculous hair band from the ‘80s showing up for a gig?

Ah, I know what Half Nelson is… I just haven’t seen it yet. Even Oscar-nominated for Ryan Gosling’s performance and all that, I haven’t seen it. Even with a crack-smokin’ teacher and all that, I haven’t seen it. Honestly, it just didn’t sound like subject matter in which I would be particularly interested.

Then, without ever knowing the connection, I watched Gowanus, Brooklyn, the second of sixteen short films on the Shorts! Volume 3 DVD collection. Apparently, the film basically served as a demo reel for director Ryan Fleck to get a fleshed-out feature version with these characters made, the film we now know as Half Nelson. But I did not know this fact as I watched Gowanus, Brooklyn. I do not like to read the backs of DVDs before I view them; I would much rather be surprised, either happily or otherwise, by the result. All I knew was the title of the film, the name of the director (which I did not recognize, but will from now on) and that Gowanus ran a paunchy 19 minutes compared to most of the films on Shorts! Volume 3.

The result is that Half Nelson is now in the top spot of my Netflix queue. I cannot put off seeing it any longer. It isn’t that Gowanus is anything revolutionary as a film, but it is extremely intriguing. Gripping the viewer while understating the methods which caused such magic to be achieved, the film also slips away almost unnoticed. You reach a certain, small but necessary involvement with the two chief characters – a 12-year old practically latchkey girl and a genius schoolteacher caught up in a crippling crack addiction -- and then they are gone. Nineteen minutes has been reached without any awareness of the clock, like one was settling in for a feature... the short ignoring the normal laws of the short. Nothing is wrapped up; questions are raised but never answered. Some would see this as unfulfilling. I see it more in the way that a good short story can expand the reader’s imagination with a handful of perfectly detailed sentences, and does a service to the reader by allowing them to interpret the ending on their own, even letting them invent their own mythos for the characters, rather than forcefeeding them a trite, neatly packaged conclusion. Gowanus, Brooklyn operates as a blessedly unfinished and uniquely delicate miniature. We have a meet and greet with the main characters, we understand their pain and the salvation they possibly hold for each other, and then we are left to muse on what might happen to them. I don’t need to be told there is a happy ending. Likewise, if I wish to see the struggle that lies ahead for them, then so be it. Left on its own, I find Gowanus a most interesting place. I don't really need a feature to flesh it out for me.

And yet, I clearly did not get enough of Shareeka Epps’ performance as 12-year old Drey. Her part is mostly composed of discerning glares and stares, the machinery in her mind surmising each situation as it confronts her. But even with a minimum of dialogue, or perhaps due to this, she is mesmerizing. Matt Kerr, whose part would become the more famous and possibly more charismatic Mr. Gosling’s in the very near future, is perhaps not as winning, but Kerr brings a nice, deer-in-the-headlights uncertainty to his involvement with the young Epps, who catches him attempting to get high in the girls’ locker room after he coaches one of their games and they have departed for the evening. With a secret now held over him that could potentially end his teaching career, but sensing his pain and confusion, Drey intuitively allows him a secret of her own (no matter if it is a small, trivial thing compared to his life-threatening one), which allows them to share common ground. And a tentative friendship is born, albeit on extremely wobbly legs. And then the film ends -- questions posed, answers in limbo.

So, now the next Netflix film I shall receive this weekend will be Half Nelson. I am intrigued to see how Epps carries on her role in a longer production, and I want to see how Gosling expands and, from accounts as varied as nearly every film critic and festival board around the world, improves upon Kerr’s turn in the Mr. Dunne role. Apparently, Kerr himself even shows up in the feature version as another character, and this, too, has me interested. Mostly, I want to see where director Ryan Fleck intends to take the two characters, and how they will play out with the other characters established in Gowanus – the troublesome brother, the too-busy paramedic mother, the other girls in Drey’s class -- and how they will react to Drey's unlikely bond with a teacher.

It’s a form of interest I did not expect to get from just sliding into watching a mere short film on this DVD – how could I expect it, unless I read about it? For a person who loves chance discovery, this is like candy, no matter if I end up liking Half Nelson or not. As I said before, I would much rather be surprised. This surprise -- chancing upon this demo of a feature -- indeed, did turn out happily, if only for me. Most would feel such a bare bones work would leave them unfulfilled, but, were you to ask me, I would say that most can’t operate without being openly lead to solid resolution anyway. My world doesn’t work that way. There is little in the way of true resolution here, this flighty, generally ambiguous and unforgiving world. There are only more questions upon questions, all of which tend to result in answers that remain stubbornly recalcitrant. It doesn't bother me, though -- I don't need answers. I just need to understand how films like Gowanus, Brooklyn affect me. And in my short version of the world, isn’t my opinion the one that counts?

Hold on… please don’t answer that. Wait for the feature version instead…

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