Half Nelson Movie Review

Dan Dunne never sleeps in the same place twice. No, he's not bedding some hottie every other night; he's home in his Brooklyn apartment. He might grab a few hours rolled up on his sheetless bed or a ratty couch, if he sleeps at all. In the opening sequence of Half Nelson, Dan (Ryan Gosling) sits dumbly at a coffee table, up all night from a coke binge, finally stirring to shut off his buzzing alarm clock. A new day is starting, with or without him. And he's scheduled to teach his middle-school history class, just like every other day.

At a time when social issues are usually discussed (or hollered about) at the far extremes, it's refreshing to see a film like Half Nelson that wallows in the gray areas. Gosling's Dunne is about as gray as it gets: He's a well-intentioned teacher, once eager to change the world, now stuck in a rut as a lonely, strung-out nobody. He gets jazzed imparting civil rights lessons to his mostly black class, but doesn't have enough pride in his own existence. In short, it's a role made for an actor like Gosling, who revels in character complexities as effectively as some of the greats. In Gosling's able hands, Dunn is likable, logical, perhaps even charming -- but would you want your kids taught by a crack addict?

Challenges and questions abound in this solid drama, thanks to filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, film festival veterans whose Sundance award-winning short Gowanus, Brooklyn was the source for this feature-length entry. That short's main character, a tough quiet student named Drey, is a pivotal lead here, played again by calm, talented newcomer Shareeka Epps. In Half Nelson, Drey enters the picture after discovering Mr. Dunne in an empty girls' locker room, near catatonic after a serious pipe hit.

With Dunn's secret out, an unconventional relationship blossoms between teacher and student -- instead of shying away from Dunne, Drey, the only kid in a broken home, begins to trust and rely on him. Epps' smooth, even-tempered performance is a wonderful complement to Gosling's disaffected surrender. The pair exchanges dialogue with a likable, vérité-style flow, one that fits well into director Fleck's urgent handheld approach.

The film's deliberate pacing does break down about two-thirds of the way through, when it feels as if we've already seen the most interesting facets of both characters' lives. Fleck and Boden do pull out a sad, revealing family encounter for Dunne that helps, but the sum total is still a little lengthy.

Fleck, however, carries such confidence in creating an honest, unassuming character study, that the missteps are easily forgiven. In a move that could be perceived as overdone, Dunne's students periodically address the camera to explain pivotal moments in civil rights history -- oppression is a minor obsession for Dunne -- and Fleck uses archival footage of the Attica prison massacre and Brown vs. Board of Ed to make his point. This carries a dose of conceit, sure, but it expands Half Nelson nicely beyond the limited world of its characters.

Something that may go overlooked is Fleck and Boden's ability to rely on our expectations of cinematic conflict and then disassemble them. When Dunne confronts a drug-dealing friend of Drey's family (a superb exchange between Gosling and Anthony Mackie), we've seen the scene a million times in other films. But in Half Nelson, the filmmakers and actors know that crashing a cliché is much more exciting. And leaving a situation unresolved puts you in that cloudy area where people actually exist.

Watch me put this entire globe in my mouth.

Cast & Crew

Director : Ryan Fleck

Producer : Anna Boden


Comments

Half Nelson Rating

" Good "

Rating: NR, 2006

Advertisement

Editors Recommendations

Not Enjoying The View: Joy Behar Steps In As The Voice Of Reason After Elisabeth Hasselbeck's Comment

Wait, what’s happening over on The View? This is meant to be our...

Not Enjoying The View: Joy Behar Steps In As The Voice Of Reason After Elisabeth Hasselbeck's Comment

Maroon 5 - Maps (Explicit)

There's trauma for Adam Levine in the gritty short film for Maroon 5's newest single 'Maps'...

Maroon 5 - Maps (Explicit) Video

North Korea's 'The Interview' Complaint May Give Seth Rogen Better Publicity Than Money Can Buy

North Korea has filed an official complaint with the UN regarding the...

North Korea's 'The Interview' Complaint May Give Seth Rogen Better Publicity Than Money Can Buy

Ed Sheeran - Sing Single Review

Known for his diverse musical delivery having employed various elements of R&B, hip hop, folk and...

Ed Sheeran - Sing Single Review

Is JK Rowling's Pottermore Update Hinting That More 'Harry Potter' Stories Are On The Way?

The buzz over J.K. Rowling’s latest Harry Potter offering is showing no...

Is JK Rowling's Pottermore Update Hinting That More 'Harry Potter' Stories Are On The Way?

Brad Pitt, Filming 'World War Z' Sequel, Enjoys Culinary Delights Of. Wimpy?

There are times when everyone, no matter how rich, famous or...

Brad Pitt, Filming 'World War Z' Sequel, Enjoys Culinary Delights Of. Wimpy?
Advertisement

Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea - Problem Single Review

Former Nickelodeon actress Ariana Grande has landed her very first number one alongside Iggy Azalea with...

Ariana Grande - Problem Single Review

The Definitive Guide To Watching The Emmys (When Your Favourites Got Snubbed)

Few moments are more important in television than Emmy season. Like...

The Definitive Guide To Watching The Emmys (When Your Favourites Got Snubbed)

5 Reasons Why You Need To Go See ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ This Weekend

Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes invades US theatres...

 5 Reasons Why You Need To Go See ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ This Weekend


More recommendations

Advertisement