Strong performances by stars Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps elevate this gritty indie about an idealistic inner-city teacher who's crippled by drugs.
When he's on his game, Dan Dunne (Gosling) is the kind of teacher any kid would feel lucky to have--dynamic, interactive and enthusiastic. He helps make history relevant for his junior-high students in a bleak corner of Brooklyn. But Dan is a victim of the very concepts he teaches. Just as much of history is a struggle between opposing forces, Dan's life is a battle between the idealism that fuels him in the classroom and the emptiness and despair that drive him to get high every day after school. He tries to clean up his act after one of his favorite students, 13-year-old Drey (Epps), catches him with a crack pipe in the locker room. But even their burgeoning friendship--and the chance to save stoic-but-vulnerable Drey from the vices he knows all too well--may not be enough to set Dan on the path to redemption.
Ever since his blistering breakthrough performance in 2001's The Believer, Gosling has been touted as one of the best actors of his generation--a reputation that's only going to be cemented based on his work in Half Nelson. He completely disappears into his role, making Dan's inner torment and fallibility both real and heartbreaking. Dan's enthusiasm for teaching can't overcome his conviction he's a failure, and the desperate resignation Gosling infuses Dan with in his lowest moments is agonizing. Making her feature debut, Epps is almost equally impressive. Drey is no stranger to the world of drugs and dealing; her brother's in jail thanks to his association with slick dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie), and it would be all to easy for her to follow in his footsteps. But Epps gives Drey a contemplative self-possession that belies her age and lends weight to her actions.
Director Ryan Fleck developed Half Nelson from his own 20-minute short film, Gowanus, Brooklyn, an award winner at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. As a feature, the story shows some signs of padding--in almost two hours, very little really happens to Dan that couldn't be covered in the original 20-minute run time. But pacing and plot aren't really the film's main concerns. Half Nelson is a thoughtful character study of a deeply flawed man and the circumstances that have pushed him to his breaking point. With its gritty setting (Dan's apartment is particularly forlorn), mournful music, and air of tragic inevitability, Half Nelson is unlikely to be described as the feel-good movie of any year. But it does establish Fleck as a talented actor's director, which bodes well both for him and for indie film fans.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.