Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Outstanding.  I was just thinking that what we need is another movie about a white person saving the day in the inner city.  Michelle Pfiefer in ‘Dangerous Minds’ wasn’t enough dammit, Hilary Swank in the recently released ‘Freedom Fighters’ just did quite fill the bucket.  Keanu Reeves used baseball to save little Black kids in ‘Hard Ball’ and Mathew Perry was dusted off to save us all in ‘The Ron Clark Story’.  Don’t let us forget Treat Williams saving the day in ‘The Substitute’… wait, he was actually killing inner city youth with high powered rifles in that one.  Now we have Ryan Gosling as teacher Dan Dunne saving the day for inner city youth in the very independent film ‘Half Nelson’… Oh my… one second… Dan Dunne is a freaking CRACK HEAD.  Who the hell is HE going to save?  I imagine that would be the whole point of the interesting and unique character study ‘Half Nelson’.

Ryan Gosling has gone ahead and got himself nominated for an Academy Award for playing the drug addicted, severely flawed liberal minded history teacher, and whether or not he is deserving of such acclaim isn’t up to me, but he does do an outstanding job with the role.  As we well know, the character study is the staple of independent filmmaking since we usually don’t find an awful lot of plot in these kinds of movies.  Yeah, Dan Dunne is a basketball coach for the school, but he’s not trying to prepare his team of rag tag, sub par ballers for the ‘big game’ at the end of the movie, where the broke arm point guard hit’s a three as clock ticks down to zero.  Yeah, Dan Dunne is a history teacher, but he’s not trying to prepare his team of spunky inner city kids for the history brain bowl against the rich West Side kids who say nasty racist things to them.  No sir, the character study means that we are going to follow these characters from beginning to end, beginning with

Dan Dunne who is a crack addict to his heart.  An addict who collapses into a crack induced haze in the girls bathroom, once he’s checked that no one is there.  Eventually he is found by one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), who sits with him while he struggles vainly to get his bearings about him. 

Allow me take a second out to laud praise on this child Shareeka Epps who is a fantastic young actress.  Young Ms. Epps, along with young Korean actress Ah-Sung Ko from ‘The Host’ are two of the most phenomenal talents of any age that I’ve seen recently and I look forward to seeing them both in more roles in the near future.

So Dan begins to fancy himself a protector and mentor to young Drey, giving her rides home, giving her advice and the like.  There’s also a family friend who also watches out for Drey and her mother, a street level drug dealer named Frank (Anthony Mackie) who we find out is free from prison because Drey’s brother took the fall for some unnamed crime.  Dan even tries to shield Drey from Frank, believing that Frank is a ‘bad influence’ on Drey, and Dan is probably correct on that point, but he IS a drug addict, and though his heart may be in the right place he has little room to talk.

Character studies sink swim on the shoulders of the characters we are studying and requires that we feel something, or anything for the characters in question.  It is a tribute to Ryan Goslings’ ability as an actor, at a relatively young age that he is able to infuse a character as potentially loathsome as Dan Dunne with enough humanity that you actually give a damn about his character and what happens to him.  Following Dan through his life of self-destruction does get a little difficult to watch at times, but again this is because one becomes concerned with his well being and hopes that he can get out of this problem he’s created for himself so he can take those spunky inner city kids to the history brain bowl and show up those stuck up West Side Kids!

Director Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote with Anne Bolden, have created a gritty, difficult world for their characters, but he has given his actors the freedom to skillfully navigate this world and it’s a wonder to see.  Again, it’s a character study and your like or dislike of a film of this nature is based on A.) Whether you like character studies and B.) whether the characters are able to bring you into their lives.  I can’t help you with part A, but as far as part B. is concerned, ‘Half Nelson’ is one the better character studies I’ve seen in recent years.

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