Half Nelson (2006)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie
Directed by: Ryan Fleck
I think sometimes movie critics get so worn down by seeing the same shit over and over again that they tend to over-praise movies for going against the grain and being original, while ignoring the flaws of those films. I understand, if I was forced to watch 5-7 movies a week, I’d get so sick of the constant stream of remakes and second-rate prequels that maybe I’d fall all over myself for a well-acted character study that doesn’t play up its histrionics or give cliched endings. But, I don’t see 5-7 movies a week (although this is the second movie of the week for me), so I’m not as easily swayed by the unusual. When you only make it out to a movie every once and awhile, you have greater entertainment expectations for your movies. Like… a plot perhaps.
Understand, I didn’t go into a movie like Half Nelson expecting huge thrills and chills. From the little I knew of it, I knew it would be a quiet indie, heavy on character; a personal tale of two characters that should reveal some truth on human nature. I figured it would be heavier on characterisation than it would be on plot, but I didn’t think it would almost completely abandon the idea of telling a story.
Half Nelson, based on writers Anna Boden‘s and Ryan Fleck‘s 19 minute short Gowanus, Brooklyn, stars Ryan Gosling as Dan Dunne, an inner-city middle school teacher who forms a friendship with a student, Drey (Shareeka Epps), after she discovers him smoking crack in the school’s locker room. Dan tries to balance his life as a history teacher and drug addict, while Drey tries to make her way in the world, deciding on two flawed father figure-types, Dan (her teacher and basketball coach), and Frank (Anthony Mackie), a drug dealer who gives her and her overworked mother (Karen Chilton) money to make up for the fact that her brother Mike (Collins Pennie) is in jail because of him.
I’m sorry if that summary is so awkward and uninformative, but the truth is, nothing much happens in the movie. It’s not really about much other than a guy (Gosling), who does a lot of drugs when he’s not teaching kids about opposing forces shaping history and stuff. His relationship with Drey doesn’t really go anywhere, other than a squicky scene here or there that just makes you think “inappropriate…” (even then, the scenes aren’t terribly inappropriate, just borderline in a way that you hope that’s not the direction the movie is heading in). Dan’s addiction and functioning drug addict status play very naturally, with his descent gradual. The movie does feel very raw and very real, which it should be commended for.
Unfortunately, real life isn’t exactly tailor made for the movie screen, so there needs to be a middle ground between exploitative, tacky cliché and A&E reality show mundanity, and Half Nelson is closer to Intervention than it is to Dangerous Minds or even Leaving Las Vegas. I think the movie has been overpraised for not being a schmaltzy, Mr. Holland’s Opus meets Patch Adams type inspirational shlock, which is good, because a movie like that would suuuuuuuuuuck, but that doesn’t mean that the movie we got was much better.
There’s a good amount to admire about Half Nelson, first and foremost being Ryan Gosling’s performance. It is a remarkably measured and controlled performance, completely devoid of any of the histrionics usually associated with drug addiction movies. His Dan is a man falling into himself, spending a lot of his days as a quitely charismatic teacher with passion for his work, and his nights wasting away. He’ll get some Independent Spirit Award nominations and such, and they’ll be well-earned (the movie is probably too small to earn major nominations). It’s a fantastic performance that bumps the score of this movie up by itself.
Ultimately, Half Nelson is a well-performed, measured, thoughtful character study that is as short on narrative as, well, a 19 minute short. If you’re a big Gosling fan who doesn’t need any more from a movie than watching his performance, then it might have something for you. If not, you can miss it, which will probably be easy, since you may not have heard of it until you came across this review.
Oh, as for what the title of the movie means, your guess is as good as mine.