The man sits on the floor in his cramped Brooklyn apartment, the cleanest surface of which is the freshly Windex-ed table used for cutting and snorting blow. Early-morning light streams through the windows, but he is still in yesterday’s clothes, staring off into the distance, wondering just how yesterday so quickly became today. Insistently, an alarm clock sounds. It is time to go to school.
Half Nelson is the story of this man, whose name is Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) and who fancied himself a writer once, but now teaches eighth-grade history at an inner-city junior high where he is also the girls’ basketball coach and where sometimes, after an evening game, he retires to a bathroom stall and takes a drag from a crack pipe, his eyes rolling back in quiet ecstasy as the disappointments of another day subside. It is there that she finds him one night, not with surprise but with the embarrassment of recognition and a tinge of disappointment. She is Drey (Shareeka Epps), short for Audrey, and the kind of 13-year-old that has had to grow up fast: an absentee father, a mother who works herself to the bone just to eke out their meager existence and an older brother serving time in prison. Yet for all her streetwise authority, Drey remains on some level an impressionable teenage girl who wants to believe that a teacher might be a hero.
Admittedly, that setup risks making Half Nelson sound like the ultimate liberal hand-job — an inspirationalist tract about how Dan’s growing friendship with the African-American Drey pulls him back from the brink of addiction while he rescues her from the clutches of the avuncular drug dealer (Anthony Mackie) who sees Drey as a potential employee. Crash and Deliver, if you will. But Half Nelson, which was directed by Ryan Fleck from a script he co-wrote with Anna Boden, doesn’t possess such high-minded goals: Its characters scarcely know how to save themselves, let alone anybody else. Nor, despite the obvious traps, do Fleck and Boden presume to shoulder some imagined white man’s burden or show us how to go about making the world a better place. Here, people don’t plow their cars into one another to feel a sense of connection; they merely grab on to whoever or whatever is closest, lest they slide irretrievably into the abyss. It may be the least overtly rousing motivational-schoolteacher drama in movie history, and also the most profound.
This is the debut feature for both Fleck and Boden — they previously collaborated on a short film derived from the Half Nelson script — and even though it didn’t exactly come out of nowhere (it screened in competition at Sundance earlier this year), it feels like it did, because its makers are so uncorrupted by the temptation to indulge “audience expectations,” to dazzle us with their film-school ingenuity or to angle for a three-picture Miramax deal. At a time when most American movies, studio made or “independent,” seem ever more divorced from anything approximating actual life experience, Half Nelson is so sobering and searingly truthful that watching it feels like being tossed from a calm beach into a raging current.
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Fleck and Boden conceive of their characters with the sharp-edged clarity that allows an artist to work in a kind of shorthand, putting across volumes of detail in just a few economic strokes. It’s there in the classroom scenes, where we see why Dan, for all his personal crises, is one of those rare teachers who know how to reach students, to treat them as equals. And it’s there in the remarkable sequence, late in the film, when Dan goes home for a family dinner and, in the course of a few minutes of screen time, we understand him for everything he ever was and hoped to be — the son of loving but distant hippie parents, raised amid privilege and permissiveness, sent off to college believing he could change society and only belatedly realizing that he is himself a member of the corrupt ruling class. And it all feels uncomfortably real, because we’ve known someone just like this, or maybe been him ourselves.
Half Nelson is built around revelatory performances by Epps, whose only prior acting experience was in Fleck and Boden’s short film, and by Gosling, who has acted many times before but never quite as he does here. (Even his acclaimed turn as a neo-Nazi in The Believer looks studied and mannered by comparison.) Right from that opening shot of Dan on the apartment floor, Gosling is so present and so vital, so instinctive that you can’t take your eyes off him for wonder of how he’ll surprise you next. Fleck and Boden clearly created a loose environment in which the actors were encouraged to riff on scripted dialogue, to make in-the-moment choices — Dan telling an ex-girlfriend who’s leaving for grad school, “I think you’re going to be great at it,” catching himself and saying, “Why can’t I say that sincerely?” and then saying the line again — and while that kind of freedom would terrify some (if not most) performers, Gosling and Epps and Mackie get charged up by it, the way the actors in a Cassavetes picture used to.
There’s a timely discussion running throughout Half Nelson — the basis of Dan’s classroom lectures — about historical change over the decades (the civil rights movement, Pinochet, Attica, et al.) and how it has been the result of a collision between dialectically opposing forces. Fleck and Boden, too, are students of change and dialectical opposition, though, excepting a somewhat contrived climactic bacchanal in a fleabag motel room, they prefer to work on a miniature scale — surveyors of everyday rigors and of lives that turn out, for better or worse, unlike anything we’d planned. In the end, they leave us not exactly with hope, but an understanding of how the shaving of a patchy beard, the tidying of a filthy apartment and the drinking of a glass of clear, cool water might be titanic gestures of human survival.
HALF NELSON | Directed by RYAN FLECK | Written by FLECK and ANNA BODEN | Produced by JAMIE PATRICOF, ALEX ORLOVSKY, LYNETTE HOWELL, BODEN and ROSANNE KORENBERG | Released by THINKFilm | At Sunset 5, Playhouse 7