I was recently surprised at just how good Akeelah and the Bee really is.

I’d seen it promoted as a “Starbucks movie,” and that didn’t exactly make me want to rush out and see it.

Neither did the DVD cover, which makes it look like a cheap after-school special.

What I found was a surprisingly ambitious, multi-layered piece of commercial entertainment that featured strong performances by all of the leads. And it gave us some much-needed perspective on the plight of America’s schools, a subject that sounds boring but actually contributed to making this film more convincing and compelling.

Now, I’ve seen another film that explores the same territory with even more sophistication, detail, subtlety, and heartbreak.

Half Nelson is this year’s “Lost in Translation” film, in that it’s a fantastic exhibition of two actors doing excellent work and developing an engaging and deeply moving relationship.

Ryan Gosling (The Notebook, The Believer) is excellent yet again, and he deserves all of the raves he’s getting. If he gets an Oscar nomination, I’ll be pleased. He’s going to win someday.

But Shareeka Epps’ performance is the one that will stay with me for a long time to come. Her performance as Drey conveys a powerful intelligence, admirable restraint, and a smile that makes me laugh for joy whenever it busts through her guarded, distrustful expression. I hope she’s getting more work, because I want to watch her grow up.

The last line of the film is going to strike a lot of people as arbitrary, but I found it hopeful, and I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of it when you see it.

And I do encourage discerning adults to see it. It’s a testament to the power of small, well-crafted movies.

(Caution: It is R-rated for good reason, and that’s because neighborhoods like the one in Half Nelson are R-rated places.)

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