Half Nelson. Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, and Tina Holmes star in a film written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and directed by Fleck.
Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter
Ryan Fleck has adapted his award-winning shortie Gowanus, Brooklyn, about an inner-city schoolteacher addicted to crack, into a powerful, unforgettable feature. As superb as Ryan Gosling is in the lead, Shareeka Epps, as his 13-year-old student Drey, is such an amazing camera subject and magnet for our attention that whenever she is on screen, the movie is about her.
Drey’s father is missing in action. Her mother (Nicole Vicius) works 16 hours per day and her older brother is in prison. Mature in her sympathy and suspension of judgment, Drey is otherwise still a child, and very much in peril. The charismatic, seductive crack dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie) — her brother’s supplier — genuinely wants to help Drey, but his solution is to turn her into a courier in his drug deals. Her teacher Dan Dunne (Gosling), caught in his own inexorable downward spiral, nevertheless makes sporadic attempts to keep her from Frank’s clutches.
Fleck’s visual approach is one of intense, even aggressive naturalism: harsh lighting, lots of extreme close-ups, haphazard composition, and hand-held camera. At the same time, being an American, he doesn’t force us to look at anything ugly or grotesque, and he completely avoids the guns and violence that Hollywood has made synonymous with drug dealing.
Fleck is not a social scientist but a storyteller. Even his minor characters have solidity and impact. The only potentially false note is the character of Dan Dunne, and Gosling’s brilliant performance authenticates him. He reminds me very powerfully, however, of the character James Caan played in James Toback’s 1974 film, The Gambler. Caan’s character was a college professor addicted to gambling. He was Jewish, while Dunne is a lapsed Irish Catholic, but in both cases the man’s self-destructive compulsions are presented as heroic existential mysteries, unresolved so far as we know. We run out of patience with them. Maybe we are meant to.
The only other dubious element of the film is that Dan, who seems a very effective history teacher and a faithful, if ineffective, basketball coach, has to be the highest functioning crackhead I have ever heard of.