Starring: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie
Directed by: Ryan Fleck
Half Nelson, Full Drama
“Half Nelson” may be one of the hardest and depressing films you will see this year but it is also one of the finest. It features some of the best performances of the season, specifically that of Ryan Gosling (“The Notebook”) and his 17-year-old counterpart, newcomer Shareeka Epps. During the early part of the fall film season where film releases have been disappointing at best, “Half Nelson” is refreshing reminder that low budget independent filmmaking still has the ability to best its Hollywood counterparts.
“Nelson” tells the story of Dan Dunne (Gosling), a 20 something inner-city middle school social studies teacher who yearns to make a difference in his confined world. During his days he lectures his fairly attentive students about dialectics, history’s constant shifts and the corruptions and social politics of governments including the U.S. After school he coaches the girl’s basketball team, a team that as he tells a parent, “just can’t quite get the ball in the net.” Outside of the one place where he actually feels good about himself, however, Dunne is a train-wreck of a man.
His nasty addiction to crack cocaine prevents him from completing a children’s book he clearly has been talking about for quite some time. He is unable to maintain a steady relationship, lives in a ratty apartment, hangs out in seedy bars and on a regular basis self-loathes himself to sleep only to wake up for a new day of classes.
We are never given any indication to how he reached his current state of mental and physical health and in many ways we don’t need a back-story. Dunne is a good man trapped in the body of someone seriously ill. During the day he comes alive in front of the chalkboard, getting as much out of his difficult class as he can. During the night he roams the streets and bars with the mind set of someone lost in the world.
In one scene a parent of an old pupil confronts him at a dive bar as he is slouched over a glass of whiskey. The man tells Dunne about his daughter who is in her second year at Georgetown studying history while he struggles to put a name to a face. If only someone had told Dunne earlier that his work was in fact making a difference.
After an unfortunate and embarrassing moment with one of his students and team member, Drey (a wonderful Shareeka Epps), Dunne begins to form an unlikely friendship with the eager student who has had her share of hardship as well. Dunne gives Drey rides home, teaches her about the troubling sides of history and begins to warn her of a local drug dealer named Frank who is eager to employ Drey. Dunne is the last person to warn someone about drugs but still feels the need to help this one student; fueled by the idea that is he can help just one person his life will have meaning.
Epps and Gosling’s on-screen chemistry is perfect and is very reminiscent of Robert Deniro and Jodie Foster’s friendship in “Taxi Driver,” a film that in many ways shares similar themes to “Half Nelson.” Both films examine the darker sides of society and the need for change.
Gosling is one of those rare young actors who has done his share of teen romance dramas and comedies but has proven that he is capable of moving outside this typecast. The Canadian born actor devours Dunne’s character down to the finest details. The constant wiping of his drug induced sweat from his face as he teaches his students, the thick Brooklyn accent, his street mannerisms and above all his somber eyes, which at times speak more than his words or actions, are all examples of an actor’s masterful style that goes beyond mere method acting.
“Half Nelson” is not an easy film to watch as it leaves the viewer uncomfortable and unsure of whether it’s okay to sympathize with Dunne’s character. It is, however, an honest look at the struggles with depression, tackling the truth, discovering one’s place in the world and above all drug addiction. Add to this stunning cinematography, a moving score and wonderful supporting roles and you get a little film that sets out to say a lot about society and the human psyche and ultimately succeeds.