Ryan Fleck's 'Half Nelson' (2006)

Due to Ryan Gosling's Oscar-nominated role as Dan Dunne, Half Nelson has garnered quite a bit of attention for the little indie film that it is. And while Gosling does some fine work (not unusual for Gosling, who has consistently delivered interesting performances even in boring movies like Murder by Numbers), it's Shareeka Epps playing Drey who captures the audience's attention. Half Nelson is very much both Drey and Dan's stories, but Dan does not have enough stuff going on with him to make him as interesting as Drey. I find no fault in Gosling's performance rather in the script.

Drey, as the cinematography suggests, is something of a stray cat looking for a home. While she has a loving mother, her mother is often at work. Her father is absent from her life and her brother is in juvenile detention for selling drugs. Drey is looking for someone with whom to connect, particularly a male figure, and she feels pulled between Dan and Frank. And what an interesting dichotomy they offer. Dan is an unstable coke addict, but he remains dedicated to his students and forms real relationships with them. His home environment is less than inviting and not very caring – he allows his cat, the one being with whom he connects, to die from ingesting coke. Frank is a good-looking, stable black man who has a steady relationship with a woman and whose home is warm and lived-in. However, he happens to be a drug dealer – the drug dealer who contributed to Drey’s brother being in juvey and who sells coke to her teacher. A coke-addicted teacher doesn’t really compare to all of that. And Shareeka Epps delivers the most effective breakout performance that I’ve seen since Michelle Rodriguez’s turn as Diana Guzman in Girlfight.

Dan spends most of the movie being isolated, attempting to connect with students, with women in bars and ultimately failing. While their common feeling of isolation draws together Drey and Dan, Fleck could have spent more time exploring why Dan is so isolated. I think that the dinner scene with his parents should have come much earlier in the film than it did. That interaction with his family fleshes out Dan’s worldview, explains why he teaches history the way that he does, why he rants about Bush supporters when he is high, why he has so many books about black people, communists, people who he is not. The short storyline with his ex-girlfriend Rachel seemed superfluous and a little incomplete. Could it have been replaced with some more enlightening background info? I also wasn’t in love with the “on this date” reports from the students – they felt like they were part of another movie.

I admire writers Fleck and Anna Boden’s impulse to respect the intelligence of the viewer. This film is not filled with a lot of exposition – Fleck and Boden allow the main characters to appear on the screen in their own time and trust that the audience will figure out what is happening. This film is not the best-looking movie that I have seen. In the commentary on the DVD, Fleck says that he wanted the actors to feel free to move about so the lighting is more broad than focused and the hand-held camerawork can become a little maddening. But the camerawork works for scenes with Dan in his drug-induced stupor.

Despite little lapses in writing and an unnecessarily obtuse title, Half Nelson is well worth a viewing for the interesting characters and strong performances.