9.26.2006

Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson - Supporting Actress Watch



Well.


The Stinkys just yesterday caught what will certainly be one of the most compelling performances of the year:


...Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson (2006).

Epps plays Drey, a successful enough eighth-grader who's already tired out by the world around her. At thirteen, Drey's nearly on her own: disregarded by an absentee father, left-behind by an incarcerated older brother, adored by a mother who cares deeply about Drey even as she's way too overworked and overtired to care for her. Drey goes to school (most of the time), plays on the basketball team, and falls asleep in front of the tv. And, then, one night when her father neglects to pick her up after a basketball game, Drey comes into possession of something that promises to change the way she looks at life, something that threatens to grow her up real fast: a secret. The secret is what you've likely already heard about the film (if you've heard anything) -- Drey's history teacher/basketball coach (Ryan Gosling) is a crackhead. Drey discovers him based out in a stall in the girl's lockerroom and, once she knows, and once he knows she knows, Drey's world begins to change. And the relationship that develops between these extraordinary actors (Epps & Gosling) is heart-stomping in the brutality of its honesty.

Epps is that rare actor who can just -- say -- narrow her eyes and very nearly stop your heart. (The writing team had Epps in mind for the role after casting her in their 2004 short film, "Gowanus, Brooklyn": [J]ust picturing her was really great. Knowing how much she could communicate without talking, I think, was helpful...") And, indeed, it's in her eyes, a gaze alternately weary and wary (and very occasionally joyfully wide) that Epps conveys the full depth of Drey's experience holding her teacher's secret. The film tracks Epps' Drey as she experiments with the power this gives her, with the ways she's newly important in her teacher's life. In a roundabout way, this emboldens her to cultivate a relationship with neighborhood bigshot, Frank (Brother to Brother's Anthony Mackie in a revelatory turn). Epps' Drey moves (literally) between these two men -- the drug dealer and the drug addict. Both men treasure Drey's potential; each man values Drey's respect. Drey proves an adept and intelligent student of what each man wants her to be, and this tutorial reveals to Drey just how limited her options -- as a barely noticed black girl in Brooklyn --actually are. (It's a chronological crossroads recently mined toward totally different ends in 2003's Thirteen, and -- to their credit -- Half Nelson's filmmakers appreciate the gravity of this difference.)

Amazingly, Epps was 15-16 years old when the film was shot, nearly two years having passed between the making of the short and beginning production on the feature. Yet, Epps' performance retains the essential in-between-ness of Drey's age. Epps' Drey is -- by turns -- a hardened teen, an awkward adolescent, a wise woman. (And sometimes there and back again, all in a single take, as in Lulu's favorite scene in which Epps' Drey asks Gosling's character an honest question about the substance that crowds her life: "What's it feel like?" Her question is rebuked with an infantilizing non-reply, and Epps' expression transforms from inquisitive sincerity to weary disdain, open to guarded, in a profoundly true millisecond.) Alhough Epps' performance coordinates the film's heart, & while Epps routinely outshines the luminous Ryan Gosling (whose character's gravitational spiral provides the narrative structure of the film), Epps' role -- like Drey herself -- is a supporting one, a satellite in orbit of the larger bodies around her. Epps' Drey hovers at the edges even when she's at center. Watching Epps -- the actress -- maintain the clarity and maturity to allow Drey -- the character -- just begin figuring out who she is... Well, Shareeka Epps' performance stands as one of the more exciting actressing events in recent (& even not-so-recent) memory.

Itsa wowza. Don't miss it.

6 comments:

Emma said...

Very interesting. Sadly, the movie doesn't have a release date for the UK, but I'll keep a keen eye out for it.

Nick Davis said...

I'm not sure I agree about her performance being a supporting one, though I agree it is written and played to reflect Gosling's story, in some ways, more than to stand by itself. Still, I think you've summed up the movie gorgeously here, and captured a lot of what I felt was so effective and affecting about the performances and the story construction. Lovely!!

THEA336 said...
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StinkyLulu said...

Yeah, I know -- it's an either way on Supporting or Lead here (with things like screen time & scene count skewing toward Lead). I could probably be convinced, and truly -- if Epps were nominated in any category (sound editing?) I'd be thrilled...

But there's something about the performance that is intrinsically supporting & I look forward to screening it again (at some point, not soon, still wiped out from the first go) to see if I can put my finger on it. (I'm like: Gosling's totally Lead; Mackie's totally Supporting; Epps is somewhere right in-between & isn't that kinda what the movie's about?)

But golly. It's the first truly interesting and affecting movie I've seen in some time...

Nick Davis said...

Totally agreed with that whole comment - it is what the movie's about, it is a remarkable performance, and it is, at long last, a movie to see more than once.

(So, by the way, is Crank. I am not kidding you. Tim R. is about the only champion that movie has, but I'm so glad I listened to his review. Not much actressing at the edges, or even much acting, but go see it! Take a load off the semester!)

RC said...

huh...always cool to see new rising talent.