A lonesome, creeping futility seeps through Ryan Fleck’s seamy urban drama, Half Nelson, about an unlikely friendship between a white history teacher with a drug habit and one of his black pupils. Taking its title from the eponymous Charlie Parker bebop classic directed at “those times when you’re feeling kinda stuck,” Half Nelson finds its protagonist in a kind of self-imposed strangle hold from which he cannot escape.
When we first meet Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) he’s almost catatonic, slouched against a ratty sofa on his living room floor recovering from a late-night coke binge. A walking contradiction of sorts, Dan is at once a young idealist who believes he can make a difference in his students’ lives and a disillusioned addict resolved to find his answers in the crack pipe. As played by the excellent Gosling in a nuanced performance to be admired as much for its delicacy as for its restraint, Dan is a depressed image of contemporary liberal fecklessness. He wants so desperately to change a world riddled by mendacities starting one student at a time; but powerless to effect any meaningful change, and painlessly withdrawn in a perpetual high, Dan can’t even change himself.
Things take an interesting turn when Drey (Shareeka Epps), Dan’s thirteen-year-old student from a broken home, finds him in a bathroom stall after a school basketball game, nearly passed out after a hit of the pipe. For Dan, the cat’s out of the bag, and watching Drey hunched over his sad figure, you would think he’s ruined. Instead, Dan gives Drey a ride home and the two share an honest conversation about drugs and life. The next day, Drey spies her teacher leaving the classroom from an adjacent basketball court, and, later, Dan offers her another ride. The two quickly develop an intimate, if tentative, friendship based on mutual curiosity and trust.
Soon Frank (Anthony Mackie), a local drug dealer for whom Drey’s brother once peddled, enters the picture. Frank doesn’t like the idea of the two consorting and resists their extracurricular friendship by encouraging Drey to keep her distance from Dan and ride home with him. In a few unsteady, but meaningful confrontations, Dan does his best to pry Drey away from Frank. He attempts to do so to save her from the fate of her incarcerated brother. However, being an addict himself, Dan’s paternal impulses are problematic, to say the least, and he quickly cedes any semblance of a moral high ground.
But Half Nelson isn’t about moral high grounds. Fleck’s gritty inner-city racial drama has all the makings of heavy-handed Hollywood sanctimony, but what he and writing partner Anna Boden have done here soars well beyond the purview of vapid urban classroom entries such as Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds. Half Nelson very easily could have been a moralizing picture, but in Fleck and Boden’s hands, the material reaches great heights. Instead of that dismal Disney world of black and white, Fleck and Boden give us that troublesome grey area in shades both understated and honest.
As the thirteen-year-old Drey living with her single mother, Shareeka Epps is a revelation. A beacon of unflappability in an impoverished and unforgiving inner-city milieu, Epps’s Drey is a paragon of aplomb, and so is Epps’s performance.
But Half Nelson is Gosling’s film. Wearing a cracked smile and the perpetually jaundiced expression of a man sickened by the world and on the throes of giving up, Gosling lends to the film the same yin and yang he speaks of to his class. At a time when politics are approached from extremes and, as Gosling’s character laments, the world is seen in absolutes, Half Nelson is a rarefied subtle turn unafraid to wallow in all those hazy penumbra of contemporary existence.