Half Nelson

Director: Ryan Fleck

A smash in its initial release at Sundance and winner of several critical awards, Ryan Fleck’s unusual independent drama about an inner-city middle school instructor named Dan Dunne, has recently earned its lead actor Ryan Gosling an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor. Coaching girl’s basketball and teaching history by day, Gosling’s Dunne hides a dark secret—a serious addiction to hard drugs that’s beginning to affect his performance on the job. Things get even more complicated when one of his students learns of his addiction and the two form an unlikely bond that grows from simply teacher and student into friendship as we learn more about this young girl who’s so much wiser than her years that she’s the one who’s able to impact her “authority figure” for the better. Shareeka Epps is outstanding (and equally deserving of accolades in my opinion) as the student living with her hardworking but mostly absent mother who’s been pulling double shifts as an EMT ever since her older brother has been imprisoned. Taken under the wing of her brother’s former employer, drug dealer Anthony Mackie (quite good in a role that could’ve so easily been a cliché), Epps is groomed to become a runner herself until Gosling tries to intervene. His weakness and reliance on drugs gives what could’ve been a predictable TV-movie-of-the-week confrontation between Mackie and Gosling a highly original spin, making it beyond compelling filmmaking helped tremendously by a precise, daring script written by Fleck and Anna Boden as well. Filmed in just 23 days, Half Nelson shared the ’06 indie spotlight with the similar drug-themed Sherrybaby and while Sherry is a must-see for the tour-de-force of its star Maggie Gyllenhaal, Half Nelson is a superior film on the whole. Of course, one of the most accurate praises being latched onto the film since its debut surrounds its star. In the past few years, Ryan Gosling has quietly emerged as an up-and-coming star in some powerful portrayals from a creepy killer in Murder By Numbers, to a self-loathing and secretly Jewish Neo-Nazi in The Believer, and more recently as a young lover looking for a second chance in the sentimental but fine cinematic adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook. It’s been many years since I watched a young actor rise with as much enthusiasm and indeed he shares some similar characteristics to that former wunderkind, Edward Norton. Here in Half Nelson, Gosling instantly calls to mind a young James Dean—his Dan Dunne is introspective, intelligent, and rebellious in a role that also seems to have been inspired (much like Gyllenhaal’s turn in Sherrybaby) by the work of legendary indie auteur John Cassavetes. It’s a tough film to be sure but a fascinating and assured debut from Ryan Fleck, who along with Gosling received honors for their work on Half Nelson from the National Board of Review.