Ryan Gosling has established himself as one of our most talented young actors with strong performances in films like The Notebook and The Believer. He cements that reputation with his work in Half Nelson, an excellent film that deserves to put him in the running for an Oscar nomination. Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a junior high history teacher at an inner city school. Dunne is a good teacher: he’s hip, he’s fun, and he really inspires his students to learn.
This is not one of those “inspirational” dramas about a noble teacher who touches the hearts of his underprivileged pupils, though. Actually, Dan Dunne has a nasty cocaine/crack habit that consumes his life outside the walls of the school. When he’s at work, it’s sometimes a struggle to remain functional but, as he explains it, teaching “focuses” him. Dunne’s secret comes out during a tense scene in which one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps) catches him smoking a crack pipe in the girls’ locker room. Amazingly, she doesn’t turn him in. Drey is a girl whose brother went to prison rather than fingering the drug dealer he worked for. That same dealer, Frank (Anthony Mackie), now takes financial care of Drey and her mother. To say that her teacher’s drug use is not a big deal in her world would be inaccurate, but she certainly doesn’t judge him on it.
Dunne and Drey strike up an unusual friendship. At first it’s based on a sense of cautious mistrust. Then it grows into something deeper. This 13 year-old girl – with an absentee father and a brother in jail – “gets” the teacher, whose addiction began (or perhaps got worse) following the bust-up of a relationship. They never discuss the friendship. It merely exists. He drives her home after basketball practice when no one else is around. She casually checks up on him to make sure he’s okay. They give each other a lifeline. Then Dunne finds out about Frank and tries to keep him out of the girl’s life. One of the most surprising scenes comes when Dunne goes to confront the dealer. In a conventional movie, you’d expect Frank to pull out a gun and threaten the teacher, or vice versa. Something else happens instead – something much more related to who these guys are as human beings. It’s clear that, despite outward differences, both genuinely care about Drey.
Half Nelson takes a good hard look at the concept of role models. The teacher tries to keep the impressionable young girl away from the drug dealer, even though he himself is a hardcore substance abuser. So what exactly does he think makes him a role model? Is it his profession? His intentions? Dunne would probably see it that way. He holds a respectable job and cares about Drey, even as his own life is spiraling out of control. He assumes that Frank will merely corrupt her. Frank, on the other hand, can’t believe this junkie teacher is trying to influence Drey. Although he makes his money in a less-than-legal way, he at least has stability and he meets his responsibilities. In many ways, the story is told through the eyes of the girl, who must take the mixed messages given to her by these men and somehow distill what’s right.
Director and co-writer Ryan Fleck uses an interesting technique to make certain points. He periodically cuts away from the action to show some of Dunne’s students looking directly into the camera and recounting relevant historical events (Attica, the assassination of Harvey Milk, etc.). These carefully chosen incidents serve to comment on the story as its progresses. They also add to the theme of conflict that runs throughout the film. Dunne is always talking about people who have fought the system and how tension leads to struggle. At one point, he even acknowledges that he despises the very school system that employs him. The idea of conflict is central to the way the three main characters interact.
Half Nelson is the kind of movie that lives or dies by the performances. If the acting is bad, you’d never make an emotional investment in it. Thankfully, the performances are not only good, they’re award worthy. Ryan Gosling does some amazing work as the teacher whose life is in a tailspin. The actor never goes for cheap theatrics or easy emotions. He isn’t afraid for you to have moments where you don’t approve of (or even like) the character. Also, he gives you enormous empathy for Dunne, even when he’s at his lowest.
Newcomer Shareeka Epps is just as good. It would have been easy to cast a too-slick Hollywood child actor; instead, they found a young actress capable of playing the whole range of Drey’s experience. In many scenes, the character is kind of angry as she tries to make sense of the dysfunction that seems to surround her. Epps really nails it all, turning in one of the most effective and authentic performances by a “kid” that I’ve ever seen. Late in the movie, Dunne and Drey meet up in a motel room, and the wordless interaction between them sends a chill up your spine. More than anything, this scene – acted to perfection by Gosling and Epps – is the heart and soul of the story.
After leaving the theater, I was in my car listening to the new Snow Patrol CD. Their hit song “Chasing Cars” contains a lyric that caught my attention: “I need your grace to remind me to find my own.” At the risk of sounding corny, that sentiment kind of sums up Half Nelson. At the end, both Dunne and Drey have learned something, having each played the role of teacher and student. There’s a lot to take away from this extraordinary film, but perhaps the most significant idea is this: Life’s most important lesson’s aren’t necessarily taught in a classroom.
( out of four)
Half Nelson is rated R for drug content throughout, language and some sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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