A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Ryan Fleck, 2006, USA, 107 mins
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie
Itís little surprise that Ryan Gosling didnít win best actor at the Academy Awards back in February. Not that he didnít deserve it; itís just that Oscar rarely smiles on the sort of nuanced, downbeat but commanding performance Gosling gives as Dan, a junior high school teacher rapidly losing ground to his freebasing addiction, when there are more obviously attention-grabbing turns to celebrate. But if Goslingís performance is outstanding, so is the film it crowns: an intelligent, subtle and emotional work that announces Fleck as a director and, along with co-author Anna Boden, a writer of real talent.
Many of the key elements in Fleck and Bodenís script are offputtingly familiar: an inspiring teacher at odds with the system; a bright young kid, Drey (Epps), from a broken home pulled between a teacher who cares for her and a drug dealer looking to enlist her as a delivery girl; Danís series of one-night stands born of a failure to connect with his peers, sucking him into a spiral of self-disgust. But the way these situations play out is in every case thrillingly fresh, unexpected and, most importantly of all, utterly believable.
Praise to the writing, then, but praise also to Gosling, outstanding newcomer Epps and Anthony Mackie, who plays the drug dealer Frank. The interactions of these characters, trapped as they are in an awkward triangle of dealer and customer, teacher and pupil, benevolent concern and corrupting self-interest, are constantly fascinating to observe, and all the more powerful for expected flashpoints passing by with a whimper, the plotís turning points occurring organically and at unexpected moments.
Beyond the filmís close focus on the human drama, Half Nelson also succeeds in its attempt to stress the wider scope of a very personal story. Danís history classes, during which he goes off-syllabus and discusses opposing forces and social change Ė sometimes far more successfully than others, depending how much crack heís been smoking Ė speak eloquently of the vastly different problems that both he and his pupils face in life. The title itself refers to a wrestling move which uses oppositional forces to immobilise its victim, and every character in the film is stuck while at the same time aware that movement of some kind Ė sometimes desperate and foolish, sometimes wise Ė is key to their survival.
The filmís only real weakness is in its attempt to somehow enhance the audienceís understanding of the roots of Danís addiction by way of his drunken dad and ex-hippy idealist but distant mum. Itís an unnecessary and rather clumsy interruption in an otherwise largely faultless film, which presents human flaws and strengths in a compellingly realistic jumble, going only so far to untangle them but no further. Itís a rare film that leaves you keen to see what not only the director or stars but pretty much everyone involved will do next, but this is most definitely one of them.