Back in my college days, I had a roommate (all four years, in fact) who ultimately ended up getting a master’s in education and teaching high school down in Arkansas. He was a totally good guy, if a bit on the odd end of the spectrum (he’d often let out a primal scream for no cause and then do a little jig, whether an audience was around or not), but like many a folk in his early-to-mid 20s, he had a near constant hankering for the cannabis. So, he’d come home after each day of teachin’ and sit down in front of the television with his girlfriend and smoke up just long enough to eventually extract some unintentional comedy out of his milieu. As I recall, he also liked to swap Marilyn Manson bootleg tapes with his high-school students from time to time, as well. And, while I’m certain most parents probably would prefer not to leave their children’s education in the hands of a pot-smoking instructor with a fondness for bands named after supermodels/mass murderers, the fact was that the guy actually showed a modicum of give-a-shit about his students. I haven’t a clue how good he was in class but, aside from trading bootlegs with the Goth kids, he showed up on Friday nights to watch his students play football — and the guy hated sports with the same intensity he reserved for boy bands and evangelism.
And, as far as I can tell, that level of interest probably exceeds that of 80 percent of today’s educators — not that I really blame teachers for not giving a damn. Given the $22,000 starting salary down south, it’s a goddamn miracle that most teachers actually bother showing up. The “man” doesn’t pay enough to ask you to give a shit about a bunch of Ritalin-happy, text-messaging punks who speak in IM language and shoot up schools because some sherbet-smelling teenager wouldn’t pass him a note. Hell, give me a cross-dressing reefer-head who’ll recommend the occasional good book over a burnt-out, blue-haired crustcicle who’s been teaching from the same lesson plan since the Carter administration any goddamn day of the week. So long as he doesn’t have a weird sexual predilection for little ones, I say: Toke up.
And that’s sort of the predicament you’re faced with in Half Nelson: On the one hand, you have a freebasing inner-city junior-high-school teacher, Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) (he’s a base-head because he can’t afford cocaine on a teacher’s salary), who spends his evenings getting high and doing the tango with street walkers. On the other hand, he’s a fucking helluva educator and exactly the kind of guy you want teaching your kids. He eschews government-defined lesson plans, opting instead to teach a Hegelian dialectical view of historical change to a group of ninth graders who — under the tutelage of anyone else — would have absolutely no interest in the subject.
But they’re fascinated with their teacher, and the audience is equally transfixed with Gosling, who turns in one of those rare performances that makes you feel giddy just watching him onscreen — honest to God, it’s a head-shaking, awe-inducing accomplishment, the rare drug-addled, self-destructive character that you find yourself completely invested in (like Lohan, only likable). I suspect that anyone who has only seen Gosling in The Notebook might be as skeptical as I was walking in, expecting a smirky, self-referential Breckin Meyer-type performance. You have to see it to believe it, but somehow Gosling manages to be both subtle and dominating, commanding a Pacino-like screen presence with the flash of a simple smile of vulnerability. And unlike a lot of other attractive actors who are so obviously taking the role of drug addict to attract some Oscar buzz, there is no outward indication of self-awareness in Gosling’s performance — he’s self assured, to be sure, but even that aspect belongs in the character. Indeed, Gosling is just flat-out flooring, the best acting job I’ve seen since Heath Ledger’s turn in Brokeback Mountain, and both performances share the same wow-like understatement that leaves you wondering how a guy like Gosling could end up in the current wave of teen heartthrobs.
But what’s almost equally amazing is the performance of Shareeka Epps, who plays Drey, one of Mr. Dunne’s students. She walks into a locker room after a girls’ basketball game and finds Dunne, who is also her coach, huddled in a bathroom stall hitting the crack pipe. She has every reason to turn on him, but — as the latchkey daughter of a single mom who works double shifts as an EMT and the little sister of a man who is in prison for drug-related crimes — she seems to find something fascinatingly real about a superstar teacher with a drug addiction. In a very unassuming way, she makes Dunne her salvation project, while at the same time quietly using him to help escape her lot. The IMDb has absolutely no autobiographical information about Epps, but the old soul within her outdates the likes of Dakota Fanning by a few decades, I’d imagine. She’s mostly dour and seemingly detached in the film, but every few scenes or so, she’ll reveal a bit of 12-year-old humanity in a smile that will expose her crooked teeth, which almost feels like a goddamn heartbreaking metaphor.
From the moment Drey walks in on Dunne in the stall, their friendship is confirmed, though it’s far from the Disneyfied, singing-in-hairbrushes-to-Motown-hits kind of relationship you might expect in a teacher-saves-student-who-saves-teacher kind of flick. The movie — which is captured with typical indie film stock — is a bit slow in parts, but necessarily so, allowing the teacher-student relationship to bloom naturally, without forcing some inane backstory into the proceedings to create a contrived context. His attempts to save her from a pusher (Anthony Mackie, who is also very good) and her attempts to rescue him from addiction (and the same pusher) ultimately leads to the film’s despairing (though asexual), rock-bottom “ass-to-ass” moment. But Gosling creates the kind of character who you watch go into a downward spiral, both at school and at home, and hope against anything that he’ll pull out of it, knowing at the same time that if he does, the film will feel kind of lame and feel-goody.
But director Ryan Fleck (who co-wrote with Anna Boden) knows his material and hews — perhaps a bit too closely — to the reality of addiction, without really making Half Nelson a glum addiction film, per se. Still, there are no Bobby Fischer/Finding Forrester epiphanic moments, but neither does it devolve into a Requiem for a Dream-type experience that has you looking for a 10th-floor window. Indeed, there is just enough optimism in Half Nelson to leave you feeling content, but not so much that you feel robbed. In an indie world where quirk and whimsy seem to be constantly battling it out with utter despair, Half Nelson is one of the few films that finds a satisfying middle ground.
Watch the Half Nelson trailer.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives in a blue house with his wife in a hippie colony/college town in upstate New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.Stick This in Your Notebook, Asshole
Film | September 14, 2006 | Comments ()