Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a history teacher who seems to do well with the kids in his class, despite the fact that he doesn't work with the standard curriculum, and he also has a drug addiction issue. Discovered one time by young Drey (Shareeka Epps), a bond is created that may or may not lead to big changes for them. Although that depends on whether or not either of them can actually change. Dan is held fast in the grip of his addiction, Drey seems to be heading down a path alongside a dealer (Frank, played by Anthony Mackie) who considers himself a friend to the young girl.
The first fictional feature helmed by the film-making team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (both wrote the script, Fleck directed), after a few shorts and a documentary between them, Half Nelson is in line with a lot of their other work, and also remains one of their best. It manages to strive for realism at times without being too grim, puts the main character through the wringer while never losing a sense of optimism, and everything is anchored by some damn fine lead performances.
Gosling is his usual understated self, a likeable presence that you keep rooting for throughout (because surely he can help kids more if he can get his life back on track), and Epps holds her own alongside him, a young girl somehow defying the odds as events around her conspire to nudge her towards some potentially-damaging life choices. The fact that Mackie, the important third point in this defining relationship triangle, manages to not be the kind of character who makes your skin crawl while you boo and hiss at him until he goes offscreen again is testament to both how good his acting is and how carefully the script works to shade every character.
You can easily view Half Nelson as something we've seen many times before. At heart, it's a tale of a teacher and student who may end up learning from one another. But it becomes more complex when you add the drug addiction. And it becomes even MORE complex when you start to break down the characters and their motivations. I just mentioned Mackie doing well in his role, but Boden and Fleck use their casting to also, perhaps, distract us from the fact that Gosling, as well-intentioned as he is, could end up causing just as much harm to young minds by failing his students, in terms of classroom ethics and also how he could work as a role model.
The look and sound of the film is what you would expect from such low-budget indie fare. It all looks good, don't get me wrong, but it's a mix of scenes infused with a warm glow and the low soundtrack weaves in and out in a fairly unobtrusive manner. Most people speak in a fairly low, intimate, tone and camera focus is a low priority to show drug-induced haziness.
Highly recommended if you like the acting style of Gosling, if you appreciate Mackie as much as he should be appreciated, and/or if you are a fan of other films you have seen from Boden and Fleck.
You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.