In Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling plays Dan, an inner-city junior high school history teacher who doubles as the coach of the girls' basketball team. Young enough to relate to his students as something other than an authority figure, Dan has developed a rap having to do with, believe it or not, the Hegelian dialectic. History is the result of opposing forces duking it out, and Dan wants his kids, all of them dues-paying members of the urban proletariat, to know that they have a certain amount of control over their lives. The future is up to them.
It's an inspirational message, the kind that usually goes in one ear and out the other but sometimes lodges in the deep folds of the brain. Dan is one of those teachers that a small percentage of students will remember for the rest of their lives. Alas, he's also a cocaine addict, which Gosling communicates in the subtlest of ways. Dan often looks tired, rubbing his eyes before his class begins. And he has this barely noticeable way of removing the sweat from his brow, running his hand along his forehead, as if lost in his rapid-fire thoughts.
He's lost, all right. And his salvation arrives in the form of Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of his student/athletes. With a father who took off and a brother who's in prison, Drey's seen it all. So when she discovers Dan in the girls' bathroom after a home game, sucking on a crack pipe, she's as impassive as the Sphinx. But she doesn't report him. On the contrary, she gradually befriends him. And he doesn't exactly change his ways, although there are a few days where he does some push-ups and sit-ups and tries to spiff up his ratty apartment.
One shudders to think what a more mainstream movie would have done with this material ' Dangerous Minds meets Reefer Madness. And Half Nelson doesn't entirely avoid the pitfalls of its afterschool-special premise. But director Ryan Fleck, who also wrote the script with Anna Boden, gives the movie a fly-on-the-wall documentary reality, shooting on location with a handheld camera. The sound, too, is recorded on the spot, not dubbed in later. And the result is impressive, a just-say-no movie with a fair amount of street cred.
As Dan, Gosling deserves extra credit for a performance so lived in you can practically smell the body odor seeping through the deodorant and shampoo. He doesn't overplay or underplay the drug addiction, but it's there in everything Dan does, even in the trumpet solos he hums, the party never quite over. As Drey, Epps says little, her face a mask, but there's obviously a lot going on in there. And Fleck uses her lack of acting experience, allows it to convey Drey's isolation from the world. Abandoned more than once, she's dug a moat around herself.
But she's capable of letting down the drawbridge, and Half Nelson presents her with a choice: Dan or Frank (Anthony Mackie), a local drug dealer who owes her one because her brother took the rap for a bust that should have sent Frank to prison instead. Personalizing the dialectic like this doesn't do the movie any favors, but at least it's an interesting dilemma: drug addict or drug dealer (both of whom seem like upstanding citizens otherwise). And at least, for once, we ourselves aren't entirely sure which way things should go.