Directed by Ryan Fleck. Starring Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Curnen, Karen Chilton, Tina Holmes, Nathan Corbett. (2006, R, 106 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 15, 2006
Gosling's best work is still his Jewish skinhead character in Henry Bean's overlooked The Believer. Thin and wiry and often looking as though he just stepped out of a Death Cab for Cutie song, Gosling is the emo Brad Pitt. His turn in the lovesick geyser The Notebook seemed hand-delivered by the Postal Service, and now with Half Nelson, he's entered into Wilco territory (with a soundtrack by Broken Social Scene), and he's trying to break your damn heart again. But Gosling, as Dan, a Brooklyn junior high school teacher hooked on crack, has met his match in the smoldering realism of newcomer Epps. As the 13-year-old Drey, who discovers her teacher passed out on the floor of the girl's bathroom, Epps inhabits the character of a kid whose latchkey home life is already a steadily mounting train wreck: Her mother, an EMT, is less a factor in her life than her drug-dealing Uncle Frank (Mackie), whose siren song of making a way out of the ghetto by stoking its own self-perpetuating fires is counterbalanced by Dan. Frank and Dan are already aware of each other via the back-alley drug trade, so when this idealistic teacher (he's way into dialectics) gives Drey a ride home one day and sees the cagey Frank trolling around, it's like a pair of gunfighters squaring off against each other. But Fleck, working from a script he co-wrote with Anna Boden, eschews black-hat/white-hat moralism in favor of something rarely seen these days: grey-hat realism. Half Nelson, with its bleakly hopeful view of humanity both damned and redeemed – simultaneously – is uncomfortably, almost exactly right. Epps plays Drey silent, introspective, yet crafty, too. She's been around enough dopers to read the signs, but her knowledge of Dan's shadow life gives her a power over him a simpler child might abuse. But Drey's not simple, and neither is Dan. And thankfully, neither is Half Nelson.