As an alarm beeps, Dan Dunne sits in a shirt and underwear, slumped over his glass coffee table in the early-morning light. A history teacher and basketball coach at a Brooklyn junior high school, Dan is also a crack addict. Despite his disenchantment with the world, he is determined to make a difference, trying to inspire his students by teaching them about civil rights using Hegelian dialectics: change as the push and pull of opposites. One of his 13-year-old students is Drey, who has a deadbeat dad, a brother in jail on drug charges, and a mother who works night shifts. When Drey finds Dan off his face in the girl’s bathroom after a game, she helps him get cleaned up. That encounter sparks a tentative friendship, and Dan soon realizes the need to protect her from Frank, the neighbourhood drug dealer who is responsible for getting her brother locked up.
While the ideas behind Half Nelson may not seem all that original – we have seen the inner city schools, idealistic teachers and the drugs before – the film-makers successfully subvert the usual inspirational clichés that litter the genre, creating a film that feels fresh, honest and at times deeply moving, with terrific performances by its three leads. Ryan Gosling, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, delivers a perfectly-tuned performance as the conflicted teacher, whose ideals are buried by his addiction. Gosling excels at quietly turning the charm on and off, boyishly vulnerable one minute and callous the next. Epps, a non-professional actor who was discovered by director Ryan Fleck and his co-writer Anna Boden after a tour of Brooklyn schools, is remarkably impressive as the smart, wary tomboy, whose face is transformed by an amazing smile when she lets her guard down. She is forced to choose between Dan and Frank and, even though she is more responsible than most of the adults around her, she is still not quite tough enough to deal with Dan’s breakdown. She knows what she is getting with Frank, who is played with an equal amount of charm by Mackie; he may be a drug dealer, but he is a known quantity, unlike Dan – something Frank proves to Drey in one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes.
Finely written, Half Nelson’s nuanced perspective also owes a lot to its talented actors; rather than relying on heavy-handed dialogue, some of the best scenes – Drey finding Dan on the bathroom floor, her delivering drugs – are played out almost wordlessly. And while the film is undeniably political, issues like race and war – the film was written in the run-up to the conflict in Iraq – are handled discreetly. Andrij Parekh’s cinéma-vérité-influenced camerawork and a terrific soundtrack from Broken Social Scene give the film its sense of style. The result is a movie that is spontaneous, intelligent, but never preachy. Fleck and Boden’s follow-up, Sugar, about a young Puerto Rican baseball player trying to make it in the US, was also released in 2008 to critical acclaim; the pair seem to have a gift for turning arguably-banal subject matter into something beautiful.