Ryan Gosling as Dan Dunne
Anthony Mackie as Frank
Shareeka Epps as Drey
Stephanie Bast as Vanessa
Karen Chilton as Karen
Nathan Corbett as Terrence
Monique Curnen as Isabel
Tina Holmes as Rachel
Collins Pennie as Mike
Deborah Rush as Jo
Jay O. Sanders as Russ
Bryce Silver as Bernard
Sebastian Sozzi as Javier
Nicole Vicius as Cindy
Tristan Wilds as Jamal
Christopher Williamson as Charles
Directed by Ryan Fleck
Ryan Fleck’s fine DIY debut leaves a lasting impression due to the three solid performances from Gosling, Mackie and newcomer Shareeka Epps.
Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a liberal history teacher at an inner city school who drinks and does drugs to get through his day-to-day life, but when a strong-willed 13-year-old (newcomer Shareeka Eps) catches him smoking crack in the locker room, Dunne discovers that he needs her help as much as she needs him to keep her out of drugdealing that has put her brother in prison and put her under the guardianship of the drugdealer Frank (Anthony Mackie).
These days, anyone with a script and a handheld camera can make a movie, and at first glance, you might think that “Half Nelson” is just such a case with its shaky DIY style. Except that Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have been developing the movie for years starting with a short movie called “Gowannus, Brooklyn” and then turning it into a feature length film after success on the festival circuit. It’s not a new story, as many shorts have been expanded into full features, except that with the added benefits of financing, Fleck and Boden did the best thing they could do for their idea by bringing in two top-notch actors, Ryan Gosling and Anthony Mackie.
At first, it seems like the movie is all about Gosling’s Dan Dunne, a white 20-something middle school teacher in Brooklyn, teaching black history and civil rights to his predominantly black class with the principal always breathing down his neck, since he completely ignores the school curriculum to use his own methods. He’s a young politically conscious man with big ideas about how to invoke change, but constantly frustrated that change is not happening fast enough to make a difference. His after-school life involves drinking, drugs and loose women with very little regard for his own health or the fact that he has to be back in school the next day, acting as a good role model for his students. Eventually, a girl named Drey catches him smoking crack, and after a bit of next day awkwardness, Dan finds out that she comes from a broken family, with a brother in jail and a mother working too hard to keep an eye on her, and they realize that there is a reason they were brought together. Dan starts giving her rides home, but soon, a family friend Frank, a drugdealing cohort of Drey’s jailed brother, starts becoming suspicious of Drey’s relationship with her drug-addicted teacher.
With the type of “New Order title” that requires a bit of thought–or the production notes–to understand its relevance, “Half Nelson” might take a bit of time to really win you over, because Gosling’s Dan is not exactly the type of person you can support, even if he is trying to help these troubled inner city kids and Drey in particular. It’s another great role for Ryan Gosling, who uses Dan’s dual nature to turn it into a modern day Jekyll and Hyde story, being a guiding light for these students when sober but not having control over his own life or addiction when he leaves school for the day, and acting like an *sshole to everybody who cares about him, including Drey. It’s only when we see Dan spending time with his parents that we get a few more pieces of the puzzle in terms of why Dan is the way he is, since both his parents drink heavily and his father will only support him on his own terms.
As good as Gosling is, he’s sometimes overshadowed by first-time actress Shareeka Epps, who also starred in the short film, because she brings a realism to the role of Drey that could only come from someone we haven’t seen in other movies. Anthony Mackie has been one of the best up ‘n’ coming actors for many years, and it’s proven again here with the way he’s able to make a drugdealer like Frank such an affable and somewhat sympathetic character, even if it’s obvious that he’s steering Drey astray.
A lot of the subtext about race relations is a bit obvious but thankfully, far subtler than “Monster’s Ball,” and it never deliberately tries to hit you over the head with anything too heavy. The fact that Drey has these two flawed men influencing her life, both looking out for her well being despite having their own issues, creates just the right shade of grey that keeps the viewer from favoring one of her mentors over the other. The movie’s high points come when the two actors confront each other in an effort to become the dominant male force in Drey’s life.
Otherwise, the movie is fairly vague in its intentions, leaving a lot more to the viewer than some might prefer, and the shaky handheld camerawork makes you think that maybe they spent most of their budget on the talent rather than getting a good cinematographer. On the other hand, the soundtrack and sound design are excellent, reinforcing “Half Nelson” as the type of moody character piece that uses its score effectively in its many non-dialogue moments.
By the time the third act rolls around, you’re already so caught up in the lives of these three people that every new plot development, mostly involving Dan’s downwards spiral, holds your attention by the scruff of the neck. The sudden ending leaves things hanging in an odd place, forcing you to decide where the relationship between Dan and Drey will go from there. It’s sure to annoy or even infuriate those looking for a more traditional ending, but it’s appropriate for a movie that never tries to be more than a fly-on-the-wall into the lives of three people meeting at a crossroads.
The Bottom Line:
“Half Nelson” is a solid human story about people that not everyone will be able to relate to or empathize with, and though far from perfect, the combination of writing and acting within a setting and story that feels very natural and real makes it the type of movie that sets a new standard for indie dramas to come.