When Dan Dunne’s alarm clock goes off at the beginning of “Half Nelson,” he’s not in bed. He’s sitting on the floor in the other room of his depressing New York City apartment, underwear-clad, recovering from the effects of the crack he’s been smoking all night. He moves to the bedroom, shuts off the alarm, and gets ready for work, teaching history to inner-city eighth-graders and coaching the middle school’s girls basketball team.
This is not your ordinary story of teachers inspiring young minds. Dan is a good teacher, and his students love him, but he is now so addled by his drug addiction that he can hardly keep himself together in the classroom. He lives perpetually on the verge of self-destruction, his life a dark cycle of teaching, coaching, and getting high. It seems only a matter of time before those three facets of his life collide.
Ah, but there is hope. In wrestling, the half nelson hold is hard to get out of, but not impossible. It’s a hold that controls you only until you break free of it, or until your opponent moves to a tighter hold and pins you. Your fate is not yet sealed, in other words.
“Half Nelson,” shot in an unpolished, realistic style by writer/director Ryan Fleck (expanding it from his 2004 short film “Gowanus, Brooklyn”), is about Dan Dunne wading in the mire of his addiction. He knows his choices are to either get clean or die, and since neither option is appealing, instead he coasts, running on fumes, blindly stumbling from one day to the next.
Dan (Ryan Gosling) reaches a critical juncture when one of his basketball players, a girl named Drey (Shareeka Epps), catches him getting high. Her reaction is embarrassment at first, a sort of “Sorry to interrupt; I didn’t know anyone was in here.” She makes to leave and Dan asks her to stay. She knows his secret now and he needs her help.
Drey needs Dan, too. Her brother, Mike (Collins Pennie), is in prison, and Mike’s friend Frank (Anthony Mackie) has been helping Drey’s family out, using the money he makes as a drug dealer to keep Drey’s mother afloat. He’s like a surrogate big brother to Drey, though whether she needs a drug dealer for a role model is questionable. Dan wants to protect her from Frank, but he’s not really in a position to take a moral stand.
Or is he? One of the film’s warm undercurrents (so desperately needed in a movie with such dark subject matter) is the implied message that no matter how screwed up your life is, you can still be a useful member of society. Dan truly motivates his students and is a force for good in their lives. He teaches them about 20th century historical figures who have inspired great change, and opens their eyes to the possibility that they, too, could do something great. His positive qualities don’t excuse his being a crackhead, but the point is that no life is completely unsalvageable.
Crucial to the film’s almost-complete success as a powerfully gripping drama is Ryan Gosling’s performance as Dan. Gosling is known to aficionados of independent films for his fine turns in “The Believer,” “The Slaughter Rule” and “The United States of Leland.” Unfortunately, to the average moviegoer he is known for piffle like “Murder by Numbers” and “The Notebook,” and for being Rachel McAdams’ dreamy boyfriend. One segment of the population will be greatly surprised by his work in “Half Nelson,” while the other will nod knowingly, glad that Gosling’s worth as an actor is finally becoming widely known.
What he does here is subtle, not showy. From a superficial standpoint, he affects a mild East Coast accent and grunges himself up a bit. The rest of his performance is in his delivery, in his haunted eyes, in the way he can barely interact with his parents, in the slightly desperate tone of his voice. It’s not a flashy performance; it doesn’t involve prosthetic noses, outrageous accents or flamboyant costumes. But it’s bound to be one of the best performances of the year.
Anthony Mackie, so dull in the basketball drama “Crossover,” is much better here as Frank the dealer. Frank is a menacing neighborhood figure, yet he honestly cares about Drey’s family, too. And Drey herself is played with impressive maturity by Shareeka Epps, who appeared in Fleck’s original short film, too. Fleck was wise to hang on to her.
With its themes of drug addiction, broken homes and urban blight, “Half Nelson” has all the hallmarks of a sad, morbid film. But it’s not one. It’s serious, yes, but not oppressively so. There is hope in it. It has a whiff of brilliance about it.
A- (1 hr., 46 min.; )