Dan Dunne never sleeps in the same place twice. No, he’s not bedding some hottie every other night; he's home in his Brooklyn apartment. He might grab a few hours rolled up on his sheetless bed or a ratty couch, if he sleeps at all. In the opening sequence of Half Nelson, Dan (Ryan Gosling
) sits dumbly at a coffee table, up all night from a coke binge, finally stirring to shut off his buzzing alarm clock. A new day is starting, with or without him. And he's scheduled to teach his middle-school history class, just like every other day.
At a time when social issues are usually discussed (or hollered about) at the far extremes, it's refreshing to see a film like Half Nelson that wallows in the gray areas. Gosling's Dunne is about as gray as it gets: He's a well-intentioned teacher, once eager to change the world, now stuck in a rut as a lonely, strung-out nobody. He gets jazzed imparting civil rights lessons to his mostly black class, but doesn't have enough pride in his own existence. In short, it's a role made for an actor like Gosling, who revels in character complexities as effectively as some of the greats. In Gosling's able hands, Dunn is likable, logical, perhaps even charming -- but would you want your kids taught by a crack addict? Article continues below
Challenges and questions abound in this solid drama, thanks to filmmakers Ryan Fleck
and Anna Boden, film festival veterans whose Sundance award-winning short Gowanus, Brooklyn was the source for this feature-length entry. That short’s main character, a tough quiet student named Drey, is a pivotal lead here, played again by calm, talented newcomer Shareeka Epps
. In Half Nelson, Drey enters the picture after discovering Mr. Dunne in an empty girls' locker room, near catatonic after a serious pipe hit.
With Dunn's secret out, an unconventional relationship blossoms between teacher and student -- instead of shying away from Dunne, Drey, the only kid in a broken home, begins to trust and rely on him. Epps' smooth, even-tempered performance is a wonderful complement to Gosling's disaffected surrender. The pair exchanges dialogue with a likable, vérité-style flow, one that fits well into director Fleck's urgent handheld approach.
The film’s deliberate pacing does break down about two-thirds of the way through, when it feels as if we’ve already seen the most interesting facets of both characters' lives. Fleck and Boden do pull out a sad, revealing family encounter for Dunne that helps, but the sum total is still a little lengthy.
Fleck, however, carries such confidence in creating an honest, unassuming character study, that the missteps are easily forgiven. In a move that could be perceived as overdone, Dunne’s students periodically address the camera to explain pivotal moments in civil rights history -- oppression is a minor obsession for Dunne -- and Fleck uses archival footage of the Attica prison massacre and Brown vs. Board of Ed to make his point. This carries a dose of conceit, sure, but it expands Half Nelson nicely beyond the limited world of its characters.
Something that may go overlooked is Fleck and Boden's ability to rely on our expectations of cinematic conflict and then disassemble them. When Dunne confronts a drug-dealing friend of Drey's family (a superb exchange between Gosling and Anthony Mackie
), we've seen the scene a million times in other films. But in Half Nelson, the filmmakers and actors know that crashing a cliché is much more exciting. And leaving a situation unresolved puts you in that cloudy area where people actually exist.