I’ve seen Ryan Gosling do a lot of crappy things in his short career. He was on the Saved by the Bell clone Breaker High, he filled the pipe cleaner-sized biceps of Young Hercules and he slummed as a serial killer in the “thriller” Murder By Numbers. Little did anybody realize that hidden under that Going Nowhere Fast exterior was the heart of an excellent character actor biding his time for more substantial parts. A few years ago, Gosling proved his romantic lead cred in The Notebook, but with his latest role in Half Nelson, Gosling shows what a powerful, full-bodied performance looks like, and gets a much-deserved Academy Award nomination in the process.
Half Nelson is about an eighth grade history teacher named Dan who tries to engage his class of inner-city students with the big broad ideas about the forces that affect history and the importance of understanding those forces over simply memorizing names and dates. He certainly seems popular enough for a junior high teacher, he even coaches the girls’ basketball team and in his spare time he works on a book. What Dan is hiding though is that he has a rather large drug habit; a secret that is discovered by one of his students named Drey (Shareeka Epps). Dan strikes up a friendship with Drey, an unusually self-reliant and lonely 13-year-old with an over-worked mother, absentee father and jailed brother.
The film is about the life of a functioning addict. So often in the movies we either get the utterly grim realities of drug abuse at its worst or we get the cover shot of High Times where drugs are a gateway to a good time. Half Nelson presents a reality where the seams of drug abuse only show on closer examination, if not otherwise discovered by accident, like how Drey sees Dan after a game with a crack vile. This is where Gosling excels in the part as he portrays a man on the brink so easily, even in scenes where Dan is thundering away about dialectics you can see that he holds on by but a slender thread. But why is Dan a drug abuser? In a haunting way Ryan Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden leave the question hanging as if saying that on many levels how does one make sense of addiction? It has to go beyond coping because clearly he isn’t coping very well. Gosling is relatively well-matched by Epps, who plays dour and sympathetic as a girl who needs an adult she can believe in.
Half Nelson is a smart little movie about people living their lives, the struggle of routine and all the stupid things we do that we realize aren’t bright but we pursue anyway. It’s a flashless film that makes you appreciate the nuance required by an actor to play a real person uncompromisingly and show them for all their imperfections, warts and all. It’s full of pathos, though it’s not the slightest bit glum. I guess you can call it a slice of life.