Half Nelson is the kind of film that seems small while you’re watching it. It’s a simple enough story about a teacher and his student. But after you spend an hour and a half with these characters your heart will tell you it’s anything but small. Its story, anything but simple. In fact, it peels your layers of expectations back so completely that you may feel like you’ve just gone through the kind of emotional experience that changes you forever.
Part of it is due to the extraordinary performances of the two leads. Ryan Gosling gives the most impressive work of his career, and of the year so far, as Dan Dunne – the kind of sexy, smart teacher any young girl with a brain would have had a crush on. There’s always at least one cute teacher who relates to kids less formally and usually ends up getting booted out for having affairs with them. Dan Dunne, though, isn’t that guy. He looks like that guy. Who he is really is a hardcore drug addict who can’t get through the day without at least one hit from a crack pipe, one snort of coke, a drink and a decent lie.
He enlightens his ghetto students through his hangover with stories of black vs. white, oppression and radical uprisings. They seem to like him, or at least tolerate him. He is on the downward spiral of the failed writer. He wants to be a stand-up guy, someone who does the right thing: teaching inner city kids. But he seems to have choked on his own ambition and chooses instead the seedy motel rooms of drug dealers, cheap dates and other addicts who don’t mind his incessant, embarrassing monologues about the war in Iraq.
Dan Dunne meets his match in a 12-going on 13-year-old student named Drey (played by the absolutely brilliant Shareeka Epps). Drey is let in on his dirty secret early on. And though he’s her basketball coach and history teacher, she allows him that tiny pinpoint of trust she still has left because, well, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose” (as Bob Dylan wisely said). Even through his downward spiral, Dan can see that he has something precious in Drey’s trust. He does his best not to let her down, but one thing we know about addicts, they will always (as in, 100 percent of the time) let you down. They are in the business of burning, not building, bridges.
Drey has real life problems beyond being a failed writer from an upper middle class family. Her father is MIA; her mother works too hard and has no clue as to what is going on in her life, and on top of that, she is taken under the wing of the charismatic neighborhood drug dealer who helped land her brother in jail. It would be so easy for Drey to slip into that world – they all seem to love her. She can make money. But there’s that little tiny beam of light in her psyche that won’t let her go completely, just like in Dan. He still has the smallest speck of hope holding him.
These two characters are presented in a harsh, quiet reality – one that brings you into their world with immediacy. The suspense is in knowing that there is no way to know what will happen next, just as there is ultimately no way to know how their lives will turn out.
They come from dramatically different backgrounds and have been dealt opposing hands. Yet they are kindred spirits somehow. Both are threatened with the seduction of drugs and all of the darkness that world brings. Both have little or no connection with anyone else, mom, friends or otherwise. And both are on the outside looking in. In their gentle ways of helping each other, they show that it really can be as simple as an outstretched hand.
Ryan Gosling has shown that he has all of the raw appeal and transparent exterior of a young Al Pacino. Shareeka Epps is one of the few actresses out there whose entire personality is transformed by one begrudging smile. Working with a low budget, director Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote this beauty along with Anna Boden, have made a startlingly real, provocative, absolutely unforgettable film.