Half Nelson

Is an actor's performance enough to make a film worth watching?  In the case of Half Nelson, the answer is yes.  Ryan Gosling is one of the most dynamic young performers working today.  Not many people know him because he picks his roles carefully, and tends to be in smaller movies.  Gosling (Stay, The Notebook), shot up to fame in The Believer, and works best in moody, roles.  Half Nelson, written by director Ryan Fleck (Young Rebels) and Anna Boden.  The film is based on their short film Gowanus, Brooklyn, and unfortunately feels like a short film padded out to feature film length.

Gosling is Dan Dunne, a popular teacher and basketball coach at an inner city school in Brooklyn. Unlike most teachers, he cares about the children that he teaches.  Dunne wants them to succeed, and goes about his own way of doing things.  He teaches his own unique curriculum, much to the consternation of his principal.  But what his students do not know is that Dunne is addicted to crack.  He frequently shows up late to class, sometimes barely functioning.  Dunne cares deeply for his students, yet doesn't seem to care at all about himself.

One of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps) looks up to him because he doesn't condescend to her.  She's in his class and on his team, and the two form a wary friendship.  The friendship continues even after she discovers him hiding in a bathroom stall after getting a fix.  Still, this doesn't change the unlikely friendship between the two.  Dunne watches over Drey, whose older brother is in prison for selling drugs.  She also begins a friendship with Frank (Anthony Mackie, Freedomland, The Man).  This puts him in the ironic position of telling Drey to not do drugs and avoid Frank, while he continues to use at night.

The performances between Epps and Gosling play off each other.  Gosling looks like he is about to explode.  There is so much bottled up inside him, and it's hard to control.  He uses drugs partially to cope.  Gosling conveys a wide range of emotion without doing much.  A lot of his performance comes through his eyes, which look deep as canyons.  Epps, on the other hand, hides her real emotions well.  She is extremely wary about letting her guard down, but when she finally does, the kid in her emerges.  Both see themselves as outsiders of a sort, and the Drey character, ignored at home by her mother and absent father, looks for both a friend and father/older brother figure.  Unfortunately, Fleck and Boden add a whole lot of nothing.  Worse, extended scenes in the classroom, with Dunne talking about the role of "opposites" in creating history.  It almost felt like Fleck and Boden were trying to push forth their view of teaching, instead of showing a dynamic teacher at work.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 44 minutes, Rated R for drug content throughout, language, and some sexuality.

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