"(R) Four stars
Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a gifted, charismatic teacher and coach at a Brooklyn junior high school, an idealistic man who cares deeply about his students, a great instructor overall except for his drug addiction. Thirteen-year-old Drey (Shareeka Epps), whose brother is in prison for dealing, is a student who discovers that her caring teacher is in need of care himself. Half Nelson is a tough, gritty film that works because it doesn’t feel like bullshit, not for a second.
The characters play like real people, not the stick figures that populate most films, especially ones with an inspirational bent. Director Ryan Fleck co-wrote the screenplay with Anna Boden and they deserve credit for creating a wonderfully nuanced group of people. Of course, it helps that the cast, particularly Gosling (The Notebook) and young Epps, are so bracingly good.
Obviously, the relationship between the young girl and her teacher is fascinating, but the film doesn’t stop there. In addition to the bond that grows between Drey and Dan after she finds her teacher wasted in the girl’s bathroom with a crack pipe, there is a growing bond between Drey and Frank (Anthony Mackie), her brother’s drug-dealer pal. Both men care for the child. Each man disapproves of the other, leaving Drey to decide which out-of-focus father figure to side with from one situation to the next.
Politics also play a part in the film. Where most post-Sept. 11 movies, including such works as World Trade Center, go to great lengths to be apolitical, Half Nelson speaks up. Dan is a history teacher and he teaches about the civil rights movement, the free speech movement, the murder of Harvey Milk. Outside of class, he addresses the Bush Administration’s post-Sept. 11 propaganda and the Americans who continue to buy the party line.
Despite the grim situations and the suggestion that the fiery activists of decades past have been supplanted by a multitude of sheep, Half Nelson is not a depressing film, because despite it all, the characters won’t give up on each other. They want to help. There is hope here.