Half Nelson is very likely going to become the overlooked film of the year. With precious few exceptions — Spellbound (2002), The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002), Being Julia (2004) — its distributor, ThinkFilm, has had very little luck promoting their releases. Moreover, the subject matter — a cocaine/crack-addict teacher befriended by a 12-year-old girl — isn’t exactly immediately appealing. Besides that, the film has a few problems of its own.
Stylistically, it threatens to fall into the indie cookie-cutter mold. It’s just lousy with grainy footage, perfunctory lighting, shaky-cam camerawork and one of those ghastly indie soundtracks (by a group called Broken Social Scene) that drones along in a meandering fashion to a point where you’re ready to cry, “If you get near a tune, play it.” However, this is a case where the quality of the material and the performances — especially the two central performances — is so high that it simply blows away all the reservations one might have about the film’s shortcomings.
I’m not saying that the screenplay by director Ryan Fleck and co-producer Anna Boden is flawless. It isn’t. Some scenes are awkward and amateurish — one with the main character’s family that unsubtly links his addiction to his parents’ functional alcoholism is frankly trite and simplistic — but when Half Nelson works — which is most of the time — it really works. The two lead characters, Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling, Stay) and Drey (newcomer Shareeka Epps), are wonderfully defined and have been given over to actors who fully bring them to life.
Gosling has always been an appealing actor, but here he becomes — even if for only this time — something like a great one. There is no sense of watching a performance here, only the sense of the character. Shareeka Epps is a perfect complement to him. I cannot imagine better performances than these two. The supporting cast is good for the most part, but never comes to the stars’ level.
There’s not all that much story to Half Nelson. It basically details the disintegration of Dan Dunne, a history teacher in an inner city school, who forms a strange friendship with a student named Drey when she finds him — crack pipe in hand — passed out on a bathroom floor. It’s an image that’s hardly unfamiliar to Drey who lives in a world of addicts and dealers. Her brother is in prison for dealing, and the dealer he worked with, Frank (Anthony Mackie, Freedomland), is trying to press her into service as a delivery girl. For Drey, Dan is just one in an endless string of men in her life who have let her down in some way. But with Dan it’s a little different, because she’s actually able to possibly help him — more, she holds his future in his hands because of what she knows, yet she doesn’t use that knowledge.
For a film this grim, Half Nelson boasts a surprising amount of very welcome humor that makes the film not just more appealing, but more believably human. The biggest laugh probably comes from one of the classroom scenes involving the reaction to Dan White’s defense for having killed Harvey Milk, but there’s a general air of humor about most of the film. Even a dark scene where a blitzed-out Dan calls on his co-worker and sometime girlfriend, Isabel (Monique Gabriela Curnen, Lady in the Water), is leavened with a few laughs. Half Nelson is one of the few dramatic films that understands that humor exists in even the darkest places — and the movie is richer and more realistic for that. It’s a small, but worthy film that ought to be seen — and don’t wait to do it. If it’s still playing on Friday, I’ll be surprised. Rated R for drug content throughout, language and some sexuality.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke