Director: Ryan Fleck
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Curnen, Tina Holmes
Running Time: 107 min.
**1/2 (out of ****)
Anyone going into Half Nelson worried it will glorify drug use or make it seem exciting should have no worries. This film makes nothing seem exciting or the least bit interesting outside of Ryan Gosling's performance, where he jumps through rings of fire to deliver a brave performance in a movie completely undeserving of it. It takes a promising story and puts the blueprints on screen without fully developing it. Is it an insprirational tale of a teacher inspiring his students in the vain of Freedom Writers or Stand and Deliver? No, not really. Well then it must be a story of a good man descending into substance abuse who's redeemed by the love and care of another human being, like in Leaving Las Vegas. No, that's not really it either. I'm not sure what it was and I don't think the filmmakers knew either. All I knew was that by the time it was over I felt like I was stuck in a half nelson and was ready to submit. Out of boredom.
Ryan Gosling is Dan Dunne, an inner city junior high school teacher and sometimes basketball coach who's bright, articulate and actually really good at what he does. The scenes in the classroom are fantastic. He has an unorthodox but interesting teaching approach that involves arm wrestling his students and talking about dialectics (the tensions between two opposing forces) that he believes is the basis for understanding both our history and our present. He also has a serious drug habit. This is discovered by one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), who catches him smoking crack in the bathroom one day after school.
13 year-old Drey also has some problems of her own as her father is absent, she's cared for by her overworked mother and now she's somehow fallen in with the local drug dealer, Frank (a very good Anthony Mackie). It's bizarre how the movie handles Drey's discovery about Dan's drug habit and how their relationship develops. I say bizarre because it doesn't do anything with it and their relationship really doesn't develop at all. The drug use is just there. That's it. It doesn't do anything to create any change in the relationship or conflict and drama at all. Writer/director Ryan Fleck seems to tap dance around the issue for the entire length of the film. I think he was coming from the school that less is more and that if he showed a harrowing portrait of drug use that's all he would need for his film to work. You need more.
The only attempt at creating any kind of conflict was with Frank the drug dealer, except there's a major problem with that. Frank actually seems like a really great guy. I'm not saying he should be sitting in the car twirling his evil mustache and smoking crack, but he at least has to appear to be some kind of negative influence on the child. So when Dan confronts the guy (in the film's only scene of real drama), he looks like a moron and so do we for being asked to root for him. We feel bad for Dan because he's a good person and a passionate teacher, but let's be honest: Would you want this guy around your kids? I wouldn't mind him teaching them, but hanging out with them after school? When Frank tells Drey her relationship with Dan is inappropriate you kind of think he has a point. Especially since Fleck failed to show how Dan's positive influence as a teacher has in any way translated into these students' personal lives.
If it seems like I'm being too hard on the movie, it's only because I expected so much more from it. The film takes a serious issue and just lets it hang there while the film meanders and limps to its finale. I shouldn't even call it a finale. It's just a stop. We end the film with no sense this guy's condition will improve or Drey's life was significantly altered for the better by having this teacher in her life. None of the problems in this film stem from Gosling's performance as it's literally the only reason to see this film. It's one of the best depictions of drug abuse I've seen in movies in recent years and he infuses the character with all these different shades and complications that are no where to be found in the script at all.
He shows us someone who's throwing his life way, can't hold a steady relationship and knows what he's doing is completely wrong, but just can't stop. It's a brilliant portrayal of addiction, but I really wish it was in a better movie. Shareeka Epps does a good job looking angry for two hours. I can't figure out for the life of me why that performance is being widely praised. Some emotion would have been nice and maybe would have taken the film out of the slow gear it was in its entire 107 minutes.
There's a tendency these days to praise any low budget indie that tackles a serious issue as being brilliant. Some are. Some aren't. This isn't. It's also pretty boring to look at as it was directed with absolutely no style at all with the camera static the entire time like we were watching someone's home movie. I respected its attempt as subtlety, but it just doesn't work for a story that could contain so much more emotional impact. The film had so much visual and dramatic potential, it was a shame to see it go to waste like this. That it's gritty and realistic becomes, in the end, it's biggest problem.
The good news to come out of this, is that Ryan Gosling is gaining notice as one of our most promising actors and this should lead to even more interesting roles for him, hopefully in better films. His Academy Award nomination here is well deserved. It's kind of ironic that before Half Nelson he was best known for the tearjerker The Notebook. On the surface the latter would seem to be the fluffier of the two, but there was probably more heart and passion in one scene of that film than in all of Half Nelson. It was formula but so what? At least it was entertaining and knew what it was. I doubt many people will go back and revisit this. All the pieces were in place for Half Nelson to be one of the best films of the year. Unfortunately, those pieces didn't connect.