“Half Nelson” is probably not a film you have heard of. And that’s a shame. An independent film starring Ryan Gosling (“The Notebook”, “Murder By Numbers”), released by a very small independent company, it will be difficult for most to find this film, but it is well worth the effort to search for it. I first heard of it while watching ‘Ebert & Roeper’; Roeper and his guest host, filmmaker Kevin Smith just couldn’t stop raving about it. This is the best thing about ‘Ebert & Roeper’; they draw attention to worthy, small, independent films, giving them an audience they may never have received. Hopefully, I will be able to spread the word a little as well, and help this film find an audience.
Dan Dunne (Gosling), a junior high history teacher at an inner city New York school, seems to be connecting with the majority of his students, teaching them about the history of their country, urging them to come up with ideas and not simply regurgitate facts and dates. He is also the coach of the losing basketball team, but holds out hope. Returning to his apartment, his drug habit calls and he smokes some crack. The drug habit relegates him to a life of squalor in a dumpy apartment, with creditors calling him on the phone. The drugs allow him to escape and give him an excuse to not connect with his friends, maintain relationships, or to work on his children’s book. One night, after a basketball game, Dan steals away to the girl’s bathroom for a fix and one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps) walks in and discovers him. He’s in bad shape, so she helps him out and they soon begin to look out for each other, forming an unusual and different relationship. Drey is a self-sufficient young lady, living with her single mother, who frequently works double shifts as an ambulance driver. She goes to visit her brother in jail and visits Frank (Anthony Mackie), the local drug dealer, who is a friend of Drey’s brother. Will they be able to help each other escape the life they are destined for?
Written by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden and directed by Fleck, “Half Nelson” is a remarkably believable film. The performances by Gosling and Epps are the key to the success of “Half Nelson”, but the story, direction, everything else about the film is as memorable and believable.
I have never been that impressed by Gosling in his previous work, but that was, apparently, all preparation for his great performance in this film. As Dunne, he subtly reveals things about his character throughout, each time, providing a new link to the overall portrait, a new piece of the puzzle. We learn early on that Dunne is a drug addict, but what is surprising is that he is still able to function in his job, and rather well, as a history teacher. He teaches these kids how to think and many of them are responding. Then, we watch as he courts another teacher, and this helps us to learn how he deals with his relationships, and it makes sense when he seems to blow off an old friend. We learn that he has a book project that has been stalled and this provides another explanation for his drug habit. Or shows another consequence. Everything in his life is in limbo or has been stalled because he is caught in this drug hazed state.
When his student, Drey, finds him in the bathroom, he needs help. Because she is kind to him, he feels that he can trust her and they begin a friendship, looking out for each other, trying to help one another. This may seem theatrical, but it works because both performers are entirely natural. Dunne is a Caucasian who is teaching at an inner city school because he wants to make a change. Drey is an inner city kid, living with her single mom, dealing with all of the bad influences in her neighborhood, but she survives. Another thing that helps both of these performances is their subtlety. Each is reveled in layers, as the film progresses, allowing us to assimilate the information and make the characters seem real. If all of this information were pounded over our head in the first few minutes, it wouldn’t work. It would smack of Big Studio Hollywood. Look at the great performance by Gosling! Oscar Bait. But because the film is independent, the filmmakers don’t have to hit emotional cues at certain prescribed times, they can let the characters unfold more naturally, aiding the performances and making them real. In fact, Gosling might stand a better chance of getting an Oscar nomination because the film is produced and released by an independent company.
Shareeka Epps is also quite good as Drey, the young girl who is a student of Dunne’s. As the story is about their relationship, we spend a significant amount of time with her. The character is 12, going on 40, and Epps manages to portray her strong-willed nature while at the same time revealing Drey’s vulnerabilities. Again, this performance has stereotype written all over it, but because the actor is allowed time with the character, we learn things about her gradually, and it makes her believable. We can understand why she would be drawn to her teacher, why she would befriend him in a way, look after him. But since she is just 12, and has influences of her own, she can’t really change his life that much. She has too much to deal with on her own. Left unsupervised for much of the time, she learns how to be self-sufficient and look out for herself. She goes to visit her brother in jail, alone, when her mother is too busy at work. She visits Frank, collecting money from him, because her brother worked with Frank and may have protected him from incarceration. But because she has no one in her life, she starts to look at Dunne and Frank for support, friendship, companionship, and a male influence. As the relationship with both men grows, a tug of war develops between them. Is either man a better influence? Will they be able to guide her in a significant way?
As I describe each of these elements, I keep thinking about how ‘television movie of the week’ it sounds. An inner city girl living in a home with her single mom, left to her own devices. A young Caucasian man who teaches at the junior high and becomes a drug addict. Just reading it on paper almost makes my stomach churn. But this is yet another reason to see the film. The filmmakers have created a believable, interesting portrait of these two main characters and all of their influences and problems. The key to the film is that everything is revealed in stages, slowly, allowing us to assimilate before learning something new. Everything is a piece of the puzzle and we learn of certain pieces at certain times. It isn’t a linear progression, making it seem more like we are watching real people go about their lives.
As Dunne sinks further into his problem, trying to maintain a normal existence, we witness as he comes apart at the seams. Gosling deserves a lot of credit for making this work. As he starts to unravel, becoming less aware in his class, more tired, more affected by the drug use, everything is subtle. Yet, he still manages to function. He is able to lecture his class, to teach them, stopping only when his nose starts to bleed. Entering the teacher’s lounge, he states “I can’t handle this anymore” and a fellow teacher mistakes the statement for a general comment about working with kids.
Another element working in the film’s favor is the ambiguous ending. As each character has reached a new low, they seem to realize they can help each other, a realization they have been working towards for some time. But will they be able to help each other? We don’t know because the film ends before the story does. This helps to maintain the realism of the story and their problems; each is in a place that will take a lot of time to work out of, so it would seem unnatural to have a happy, sappy resolution tying everything up in the last few minutes.
“Half Nelson” is a film that will be difficult to find, but it deserves the effort and your attention. Help this film reach a large audience. It deserves it.