At the time of this review Ryan Gosling is probably causing more audience members to swoon than any other actor out there. One of his more recent films, ‘Drive’ sort of goes against type for him. An earlier role of his in the movie ‘Half Nelson’ helped to legitimize him as an actor and also pulled him away from his ‘Notebook’ association.
Dan (Gosling) is a middle school history teacher in a rough part of Brooklyn. He also coaches the girls’ basketball team. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Dan has a huge drug problem. An old girlfriend reappearing with news of an impending marriage further damages his fragile emotional state. One of his players/students Drey (Shareeka Epps) catches him high in the locker room after a game. She doesn’t tell on him and this starts an unconventional friendship as they have a lot to learn from each other.
Along with Dan and his self-inflicted troubles, Drey has problems of her own. Her brother is in jail, her mom works all of the time and her brother’s old associate, Frank (Anthony Mackie) is a drug dealer and a lurking bad influence. He also deals to Dan, in a strange twist of fate.
Will Dan be able to get his life together? Will Drey be able to overcome her negative environment? Will their friendship bring out the best in both of them?
The basic premise is well-worn territory. A teacher in a troubled urban school enriches the lives of students despite their surroundings and attitudes. This focuses a lot less on the in-school aspect of that and presents an incredibly flawed protagonist. It’s this distinction which separates it from ‘Stand and Deliver’ for example. The focus on characters certainly makes this an interesting viewing experience.
While the cinematography is a little grainy and obviously very digital, don’t let it scare you away. It’s all about the characters and the reasonably limited budget doesn’t restrict anything.
One complaint could be that while there is some resolution, it might be unsatisfying to a lot of viewers. There are certainly a lot of questions left unanswered, but sometimes you need more than the length of a movie to let these things play out. Besides, a little ambiguity is almost always better than a coda which tells us what happens to the characters after the movie.
This is a very complex and respectable performance from Gosling which hints at some of the work he would go on to do later. Shareeka Epps is the real star here. Her character has to be mostly independent at a young age while being surrounded by adults who are either unable or unwilling to be good role models. Dan tries and usually does the right thing, but he doesn’t even have his own life together.
Special features include: commentary, outtakes, deleted scenes, extended scenes, and a music video.
‘Half Nelson’ doesn’t directly have anything to do with wrestling or grappling. Perhaps the title is meant to imply that life’s circumstances can sometimes get a hold of us and present challenges. Who knows?
This is a reasonably simple movie with complex characters and some difficult situations. It goes to show that sometimes an unlikely friendship might be what is needed to get through it. Recommended.
Rated R 107 minutes 2007
‘Half Nelson’ is available to rent/purchase in Allentown, the Lehigh Valley, and beyond.