It’s been a summer of terrific indy hits. First Brick, then Little Miss Sunshine, and now, Half Nelson.
If you’ve stayed away from this one because you think it is another recycled Stand and Deliver, a Dead Poet’s Society set in Brooklyn, think again. While Half Nelson may wear the outer garments of a traditional teacher-inspires-rough-around-the-edges-students, its heart beats to a very different drummer.
Take, for instance, the fact that the inspirational teacher is hopelessly addicted to crack cocaine.
Ryan Gosling, who is fast becoming known as the peerless actor of his generation, here gives a magnetizing performance as a dedicated and charismatic teacher of history at an inner-city Brooklyn middle school populated predominantly by African-American children. Don’t let the fact that he’s a coke-head fool you. Dan Dunne is a phenomenal teacher, sweet-natured and intellectually committed. He truly gives a damn about his students. And they know it.
But his life is unraveling one night at a time. All the good he does during the day is threatened by nights spent feeding his habit, carousing at bars and never quite sleeping it off at his seedy, dilapidated apartment. Soon, he can no longer hide it. People are beginning to notice. He wanders the halls and teaches as if he’s a character in a George Romero zombie flick.
Gosling does not play Dan as a hypocrite who takes pleasure from the fact that he continually fools his co-workers and lives only for the revels of the night. Instead, he plays him as a human being, desperately broken (we begin to get a glimmer of why that may be near the end of the film when we meet his parents), trapped in a self-destructive cycle he knows is killing him and will destroy all he believes in, but is powerless to stop. Dan is a man being split apart at the seams by two conflicting extremes--idealism and cynicism. The nature of his problem is such that in some scenes we find ourselves rooting for him and in others, wonder how he could possibly sink any further (were they reenacting Caligula in that hotel room!?).
But Gosling alone does not deserve all the praise. The screen is held with equal aplomb by newcomer Shareeka Epps, who plays Drey, one of Dan’s street-smart students. While only 13, her eyes and demeanor have an unfortunate maturity light-years beyond where they should be. Her father is long gone. Her working mother is rarely home. Her dealer/brother is in prison. And she knows Dan’s secret.
But she doesn’t tell anyone. If anything, she begins to gravitate to Dan all the more, sensing in him something of the shattered world in which she’s lived all her life and also the means of escape. For Dan’s part, he becomes very protective of Drey, wanting to mentor her while, at the same time, realizing it would be a case of the blind leading the blind.
Though different in just about every way possible, Dan and Drey both find themselves hand in hand at a critical crossroads that will set their futures in motion. Both desperately need something to hold onto to keep them afloat. They chose each other. In the end, the signs of coming redemption occur so quickly, you’d better not blink or you'll miss it. It is a wiff of hope. Which isn’t to say that Half Nelson offers some sort of tidy resolution or forced uplift. It doesn’t. It’s far more trustworthy than that.
The half nelson is a wrestling move in which the athlete’s own strength is used against him. In director Ryan Fleck’s riveting feature film debut, it becomes a poignant metaphor for all our lives.
Half Nelson trades melodrama for authenticity, cliche heroics for genuine heart, cheap cinematic parlor tricks for blessed restraint. The result is just one more in a string of terrific indy summer hits. First Brick, then Little Miss Sunshine, and now, Half Nelson.
Come to think of it, they all have something in common. Cocaine.