In this cinematic season of vacuity and ineptitude, "Half Nelson" has to be seen. Made with assurance, restraint and psychological acuity by director Ryan Fleck and anchored by Ryan Gosling's commanding performance, this paradigmatic American independent feature approaches recurring themes in a compelling new way. You can't ask more from a film than that.
"Half Nelson's" success is all the more remarkable because it sounds so familiar. Charismatic teachers and the students they connect with, drug dealers and their desperate customers, the hard knock lives of inner-city young people raised by a single working parent: These are the building blocks of tepid urban dramas without number.
What is different about "Half Nelson" is the execution, the kind of subtlety in writing, directing and acting (by costars Shareeka Epps and Anthony Mackie as well as Gosling) you seldom see. This is a film that is careful to be real, that fearlessly refuses to overdo potentially incendiary material and that, most telling of all, truly understands and cares about its people and the fragile friendships they attempt to form.
Like the wrestling hold it is named after, in which the body pulls back as the hand pushes forward, the characters in "Half Nelson" (co-written by Fleck and his producer Anna Boden) are whipsawed by opposing forces. They are all but incapable of movement while at the same time they sense that movement is essential for them to survive.
Though Dan (Gosling) and Drey (Epps) are teacher and student well apart in age, similar crises confront both. They find themselves at critical life junctures, looking for something to believe in and hold on to, something — it could be a relationship, it could be drugs, it could be a job or almost anything — to focus and center their lives.
That said, the remarkable thing about "Half Nelson," a male-female drama that is not a romance, is that it is not reducible to formulas. The delicacy of its understanding of interpersonal dynamics means it concerns a pair of highly individual people interacting at a specific place and time.
It's Gosling's Dan we meet first, looking sensitive and spaced out on the floor of his living room, awakened by his early morning alarm after a night spent alone doing too many drugs. Dan, we find out, is a base head, someone who smokes and occasionally snorts cocaine and is proof of the dictum that "base heads don't have any friends."
But Dan is something else as well. He not only teaches history at a Brooklyn public junior high school, he is also exceptionally good at it, engaging the students, insisting they think beyond the assigned materials and even finding time to coach the girls' basketball team.
Dan believes in Hegelian dialectics, in the notion that opposing forces pushing against each other are the essence of history, a theory that finds strong expression in his own life. For Dan is not, as he would be in a lesser film, either a good guy with a bad habit or a bad guy with some positive traits. He is fully both parts of himself at all times, and the internal contradictions are tearing him apart.
Gosling, who first came to notice in the Sundance-winning "The Believer" and achieved more popular success opposite Rachel McAdams in "The Notebook," has understood this role completely. Working without artifice or self-indulgence, even when there's an American flag bandage on his lower lip, he makes Dan at once charismatic and vulnerable, a bit of a game player who has always used his too-easy charm to cover a wide range of self-destructive sins. It is a mesmerizing performance, casual yet dominating, and one that shows the kind of deep understanding of character few actors manage.
Though this is the first feature for Epps, who plays one of Dan's 13-year-old students and a basketball starter, she has both the ability and the presence to easily hold the screen with Gosling. Epps' Drey is a wary young woman, stoic and self-sufficient, who lives on Tootsie Roll Pops and has a surprisingly wide and open smile on those few occasions she chooses to display it.
The world of substance abuse is no stranger to Drey; her older brother is in prison on drug-related charges. But when she is accidentally confronted early in the film by the fact that Dan is a user, this knowledge rolls around like a loose cannon in each of their lives, unnerving them with the possibility for positive and negative changes that they may not have the tools to encourage or prevent.
"Half Nelson's" third key character is Frank, a drug dealer with ties to Drey's family, and the nonjudgmental way he is presented is another indication of the kind of film this is. Beautifully played by Mackie ("Million Dollar Baby," "8 Mile"), Frank seems a well-spoken, intelligent, even borderline caring man. Drey knows, as we all do without it being sign-boarded, that drugs are evil, but that doesn't mean that Frank has to come off as a monster.
Because it was difficult to raise feature-length money for this script, Fleck and Boden did it first as a short film, "Gowanus, Brooklyn," also starring Epps, which won Sundance's 2004 Grand Jury Prize in short filmmaking. The opportunity to deal with the same story twice has sharpened the director's understanding of the material. Plus, having the actors who can handle the scenario has allowed this film to rely on close-ups, a technique that allows for no fakery or evasions. Either you have what this kind of drama demands or you don't, and "Half Nelson" very definitely does.
MPAA rating: R for drug content throughout, language and some sexuality
A ThinkFilm release. Director Ryan Fleck. Screenplay Fleck, Anna Boden. Producers Jamie Patricof, Alex Orlovsky, Lynette Howell, Anna Boden, Rosanne Korenberg. Director of photography Andrij Parekh. Editor Anna Boden.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 848-3500. And Laemmle's Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena (626) 844-6500.