3½ stars (out of four)
No halves about it: "Half Nelson" is a wholly absorbing and delicately shaded portrait of an educator played by Ryan Gosling, a young man harboring an offstage secret.
Dan Dunne teaches 13- and 14-year-olds history in an underfunded Brooklyn public school. Veering off the official syllabus, he prods his kids to think about the civil rights movement and the CIA-backed Chilean coup and all of human history as a series of "opposing forces." The outcome of those forces is what we read about in books. Yet much does not get written about, just as much of a person's life remains a mystery to those around him.
Bright but emotionally fogged-in, Dan is a crack addict. At the start of co-writer and director Ryan Fleck's film he has things more or less under control, by crack-addict standards. He coaches girls' basketball. He floats in and out of casual affairs while pining for the girlfriend who managed to kick her own addiction.
Then one day Dan gets caught getting high in a washroom by Drey, one of his students, played by the wonderful Shareeka Epps. Not much is said. She does not rat the teacher out. A friendship grows.
At this point "Half Nelson" sails straight past the usual cliches and does almost everything right. Yes, the film is about how these two characters help each other grow. Yes, the film becomes a series of choices and struggles and opposing forces shaping the story's satisfyingly ambiguous outcome. But we're not used to seeing a teacher/student relationship on film like this, with the thorny complexity of real life.
There's a sexual undercurrent between Dunne and 13-year-old Drey, as well as a mutually protective instinct at work. Both teacher and student need tending to, but neither is simply a victim or simply heroic. "Half Nelson" isn't a suspense film, but the central relationship is plenty suspenseful all the same.
Gosling, who has his own slight addiction to the half-started, glance-away, half-smile, then-deliver-the-line style of acting, is a long way from "The Notebook" here. Without grandstanding, he seizes each moment like a man who can't bank on ever getting a role this interesting again. He's very good. Proud, self-protective and largely unsmiling, Epps is the sort of actress who could keep anybody honest and true on camera. Anthony Mackie plays a friend of Drey's family and a drug dealer, and he, too, makes a tricky character fascinating. These are three of the best performances of the year.
A short film, "Gowanus, Brooklyn," based on the co-writers' post-graduate screenplay, preceded "Half Nelson" and won a Grand Jury prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. The full-length movie isn't perfect. In the later scenes you feel screenwriting machinations at work; Drey works as the drug dealer's gofer, and it's not hard to guess the identity of one of the clients. Also, there's something off in the scenes with Dunne and his hard-drinking parents, idealistic children of the '60s now lost in hazy liberal regrets. The key dinner scene is there for a reason: to show us what fed into one young man's addiction. But that's the problem. When a scene is clearly in a movie for one specific reason, a true-to-life picture suddenly becomes a less realistic one.
Small matters. "Half Nelson," even better than the other addict indie ("Sherrybaby") opening this week, stimulates and challenges. It is, in other words, an exceptionally good teacher.
Directed by Ryan Fleck; screenplay by Fleck and Anna Boden; photographed by Andrij Parekh; edited by Boden; music by Doug Bernheim, Broken Social Scene; production design by Elizabeth Mickle; produced by Jamie Patricof, Alex Orlovsky, Lynette Howell, Boden and Rosanne Korenberg. A THINKFilm and Hunting Lane Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: R (for drug content throughout, language and some sexuality).
Dan Dunne - Ryan Gosling
Drey - Shareeka Epps
Frank - Anthony Mackie
Isabel - Monique Gabriela Curnen
Karen - Karen Chilton