Ryan Gosling is an extraordinary young actor, which is very good fortune for this solid, effectively elusive character study of a dedicated but self-destructive teacher in an inner-city school. He plays Daniel Dunne, an intelligent, engaging guy who seems to connect with the youngsters in his history class at a public school in what might charitably be called a deprived area of Brooklyn. He also coaches the girls’ basketball team with energy and commitment.
But from the start there are disturbing indications all might not be well with Dunne. He seems obsessed with talking to his kids about history as change, spouting philosophical concepts that keep him from adhering to the mandated class syllabus as he returns repeatedly to the subject of the Civil Rights movement. He often appears frazzled, tired and scruffy. And he can fly off the handle when frustrated on the sidelines during games.
As it turns out, he’s a troubled soul who habitually bar-hops in the evenings, seems incapable of sustaining a relationship (as we see from the brusque way he treats a fellow teacher he spends a night with the next morning), and–especially dangerous–is a drug addict. When one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps) finds him nearly passed out in a restroom stall after smoking crack one night, the two develop a kind of mutually protective dependency. In particular he offers her rides home when her overworked mother (Karen Chilton) can’t, and tries to intervene when Frank (Anthony Mackie), a local drug dealer, recruits her to earn some cash delivering his goods. But his own downward spiral renders his chances for success–both in helping the girl and in keeping his job–more than a little doubtful.
The screenplay by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden doesn’t explain Dunne’s fall from grace, though one scene in which he visits with his family–including a father (Jay O. Sanders) who seems to have lost his own ideals–is highly suggestive, as is another involving an old girlfriend. What’s clear is that we can see Dan as an example, if not a symbol, of the failure of liberalism in the face of chronic social ills. But happily, the film doesn’t make that point too shrilly; it leaves us to wonder about Dunne’s own history and to appreciate the way in which Gosling adds the sort of shading and texture to the character that encourages us to imagine what his demons are without getting too obvious or didactic about it. Meanwhile Fleck’s direction catches the atmosphere of the neighborhood well–the small portraits he draws of the other teachers in the school, particularly a fellow who seems to spend all his time finding ironic news items in papers but nonetheless shows a real concern for Dan’s plight–and maintains a genuinely gritty feel, and Epps complements Gosling with a sturdy, affecting turn that persuades us she’s older than her thirteen years. Mackie is excellent, too, giving Frank a curious affability that makes his noxious plans for Drey all the more plausible–and frightening. And the fact that there’s nothing slick about the production–most notably Andrij Parekh’s cinematography (blown up from 16mm to 35)–entirely suits the story.
“Half Nelson” is a good film with a great performance, a modern-day “Lost Weekend”–or “Lost Semester” in this case–that remains subtle enough to allow us to search for our own conclusions rather than simply spoon-feeding them to us as a typical studio picture would do. And Gosling proves again that he’s one of those rare actors who’s always worth watching, though in this case (unlike “The Notebook” or “Stay”) the film itself needs no apology.