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
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.