Half Nelson is a tender, movie glimpse into the tragic, fractured world of drug addiction and those who persevere through the palpable strength of human connection. It’s gritty and raw, feeling like an uber indie film, meticulously shot to look like an amateur production. But the story is endearing and hopeful, where its tragic protagonist doesn’t necessarily earn our trust, but does gain our respect.
Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a likable history teacher at a clearly underfunded, public Brooklyn school. Like most likable teachers, Dunne is unconventional, throwing out the required curriculum in favor of more intrinsic-focused educational methods. Dunne is also a drug addict, cruising the littered streets of Brooklyn at night, using leftovers from his meager salary to score a crack rock or two.
He seems to keep things under control until he bumps into a former flame at a school basketball game, causing him to get get high in one of the bathroom stalls to quell his emotions. One of his students named Drey, a soft-spoken, reserved but confident young girl played by Shareeka Epps, spots Dunne in crack haze in the bathroom. This kickstarts a bizarre, often inappropriate but seemingly beneficial friendship between the two. Dunne becomes protective of Drey when she is recruited to be a drug mule by Frank, a boisterous dealer played by Anthony Mackie. But even as Dunne tries to steer her on a safer path and invoke his role as her educator and all-around better-knower, Drey can see through his supposedly adult bullshit a million miles away.
It’s great stuff and is compelling and keeps us moving throughout. One scene that stands out in particular is when Dunne attends a family dinner. His dad displays a penchant of getting too drunk too quickly, giving us a possible cause for his own drug use, and we see that while the family is mostly cordial, there’s an unrest and an unease lurking underneath the table, a sense of disappointment in what Dunne has done with his life.
But Half Nelson doesn’t ask us to figure out the mysteries of these characters or find the solutions to the social and societal problems that brewed them in the first place. It just portrays the characters as they are, struggling to cope their current situations but ultimately persevering through the powerful of their mutual ties and friendships.