Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a young white history teacher at an inner city school in New York. He is an inspired if unorthodox teacher, with an interest in the philosophy of dialectics, and coaches the girls’ basketball team. He is rakishly charming and irresistible to women. He is also a drug addict, whose life is quickly spiralling out of any semblance of control.
One day after a basketball game, he is caught smoking crack in the girls’ bathroom by one of his pupils, 13-year-old Drey. Drey is on the cusp of adolescence and facing real dangers, as the only interested adult present in her life wants to exploit her.
Drey keeps Dan’s secret, he starts giving her lifts home and the two, each lonely and vulnerable in their own way, strike up a strange friendship. This relationship, while the movie successfully avoids any pat conclusions, may offer redemption to each.
Half Nelson is not so much a story – there isn’t a standard Hollywood plot here – as a snapshot of addiction, and as such is stunning. The dialogue, sets and cinematography are so minimal as to strip the subject matter of the glamour or melodrama one often sees in drug movies and presents the characters with stark honesty and restraint, while avoiding cliché.
Half Nelson has received much critical acclaim, largely because of Gosling’s excellent performance, and I don’t think these reviews have been overstated. He manages to portray a character that will be familiar to anyone who has met an addict – troubled, charming, manipulative and selfish – completely believably. He is often a thoroughly unlikable, even decidedly dodgy, character, but you can’t help but care about him.
Shareeka Epps is also superlatively good. As lonely, tough Drey, she gives her character real depth of emotion, but very subtly.
This is not a feel-good film about conquering one’s demons, but rather a character-driven piece about two people reaching out.