Half Nelson

“Half Nelson” Review


Ryan Gosling………………….Dan Dunne
Shareeka Epps………………..Drey
Anthony Mackie………………Frank


Director………………………..Ryan Fleck
Producers……………………..Anna Boden, Charlie Corwin, Doug Dey
Writers………………………Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden

In the film, during a conversation between him and one of his students, Gosling says, “one thing doesn’t make a man.” However, in today’s world, especially in Hollywood, people tend to believe the opposite. If a person is bad in one aspect, he must be bad in every other aspect as well, is what people think.

And yet, Dan Dunne (played brilliantly by Ryan Gosling), defies logic in Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson”. Dunne is a middle-school history teacher in Brooklyn, and coaches the girls’ basketball team. But he’s a crack-addict. At the start of the movie, we see him wake up – complete with those dark circles under his eyes – on the floor of his apartment, having probably passed out the night before. He gets dressed and gets to school, trudging up the stairs with all the enthusiasm of a dead tortoise, and we think to ourselves, “Well, this looks like a run-of-the-mill addict.”

And then he gets to the classroom, and we see a man transformed. He comes alive when talks history with his students. We then see him on the basketball court, completely involved in his team’s practice. But just when we think he’s not who we think he is, we see him go back to his routine of smoking crack, and our fears are affirmed.

The story really begins when one of his students, Drey (played by Shareeka Epps) finds Dunne passed out on the floor of a school bathroom. She gets him some tissue paper, and helps him up. He says he’s sorry for letting her see him this way, and the two forget about the whole ordeal; yet somehow, it creates a connection between them.

The next time we see Dan on a basketball court, he is promptly chucked out after hurling a ball at the referee in anger. The following scene, when Dan drops Drey home after the game, is absolutely brilliant. The relationship that these two actors and characters share is what drives this movie. Though they may be completely different people (Dan, a Caucasian, middle-aged man, and Drey, an African-American middle-schooler), the way these two interact on-screen is absolutely fantastic.

As the two get closer, we see that Dan starts to care more and more for Drey. Her brother is in jail, so she takes all the helps she can get from her brother’s friends, and soon, she gets involved with the wrong sort. And as Dan begins to see this, he feels he needs to do something, and there is another great, emotionally-charged scene where he tells as man named Frank (played by Anthony Mackie) to “stay away from Drey,” because he thinks Frank is a bad influence on her.

The acting in this film is top-notch. Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunne so well that he got nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, but eventually lost out to Forest Whitaker, who played Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” Though Whitaker did a fine job as the Ugandan dictator, I felt Gosling did an equally good job in “Half Nelson.” Shareeka Epps – only 17 when she played Drey in this film – did just as well. Don’t take anything away from Anthony Mackie, though; despite the fact that he didn’t get a great deal of screen-time, he made every second count as a sort of guardian for Drey. With that said, Gosling is the one who stelas the show. I believe he is one of the finest prospects in the industry, and has to be one of the best actors of his generation. The film, however, doesn’t work on individual performances, but on the relationships between the characters.

The score was very well done as well, I thought, elevating the on-screen drama. Done mostly by Broken Social Scene, the music never became overbearing, and complimented the film very well. From a directing standpoint, too, the film was excellent. The direction, especially of the scenes with Dan and Drey, was fantastic; the performances may well have fallen flat if not for the stellar direction. What makes it even better is the fact that this was Ryan Fleck’s – the director – first feature film; for a first-timer, this a phenomenal performance.

During one scene, Dan says to his girlfriend, “the kids keep me focused,” and as the film goes on, we start to see that this is true. Even if everything else is messed up in his life – if he’s a coke addict, if his ex-girlfriend is getting married to another guy – he will remain focused on his students. He believes that he has never done anything right in his life, and finally he has the chance, which is why he wants to do right by Drey; he wants to take care of her, watch out for her, and this is where “Half Nelson” gets its power.

This movie challenges us to think differently. It tells us to judge a person not by how he looks, but by what he does. It makes us think differently, and it is refreshing. This is an out-and-out drama, and there isn’t a great deal of action in the movie. The film is driven by relationships and conversations, not by guns or action-packed scenes. It is a change in the pattern, and that in itself is a reason to go watch this movie. But it has so much more, from fantastic performances to risk-taking directing, this Ryan Gosling tour de force is a must-see.