When it comes to films about teaching, the formula is pretty standard: eccentric teacher takes the delinquents nobody wanted, breaks all the standard rules of education, and changes their lives by believing in them. And that’s exactly what happens in Half Nelson - except that the inspirational teacher is a closet crack head.
By day, Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a middle school history teacher who gets through to his underprivileged students by contextualizing history rather than forcing them to memorize dull facts. By night, however, Dan is a party fiend, taking whatever drugs he can get his hands on before cruising to pick up women whom he ultimately bores to death with passionate rants on politics. Even though you’d think that being a drug-addicted teacher would be problematic, the principal doesn’t seem to mind Dan’s glassy-eyed hangovers as long as he teaches the civil rights movement according to her course binder.
Everything comes to a shattering standstill for Dan when Drey (Shakeera Epps), one of his favorite students, discovers him in the girl’s bathroom cradling a crack pipe. The sight of Dan bug-eyed on the toilet seat is nothing new to Drey, whose older brother is doing time to cover up for local drug lord Frank (Anthony Makie), so she patiently brings Dan a cool towel and helps him come down from his high. Drawn together by their shared secret, Drey and Dan start spending more time together, as Dan struggles to protect Drey from Frank’s influences and the world of drugs that he cannot escape himself.
Half Nelson is an incredibly subtle and engaging film that turns the teaching genre on its heels, though it’s lacking something that made films like Stand & Deliver and Lean on Me so successful - an inspirational ending for starters. But more importantly, the film is missing the character development and complicated storyline needed to transcend the independent film scene. We never learn why Dan started doing drugs nor why he doesn’t seek help, and we get only minor glimpses of important characters like Dan’s parents, his current girlfriend and Drey’s mother. The basic storyline of Drey and Dan simultaneously trying to save one another is intriguing, but a more substantial plot would have taken the film to another level.
Despite its shortcomings, Half Nelson is intoxicating, mainly due to the exceptional performances by its actors. Though Ryan Gosling is a huge long shot for the Oscar win, he certainly deserves the nod for his subtle yet incredibly complex portrayal of a well-meaning druggie. Newcomer Shakeera Epps offers an equally impressive performance and plays the perfect foil to Makie’s Frank and Gosling’s Dan. Ultimately, the performances overshadow the plot hiccups and the low-key filmmaking allows the acting to speak for itself. After all, Gosling manages to make us like a character who shoots up, nearly rapes someone, and teaches class hung over, which doesn’t exactly make him the typical teacher of the year.
Half Nelson is shot in a documentary style, giving it a grainy look that actually works with the subject matter. Though the film’s extreme close-ups and hand held camera angles contribute to the amateurish vibe, they also enhance the claustrophobic feeling of Dunne’s imprisoning addiction. The movie also flashes to archival footage of major Civil Rights struggles, which not only complement the storyline, but blend perfectly into the minimalist filmmaking style. For audio, the DVD only offers an English track with Dolby 5.1 digital sound, but has English and Spanish subtitles as well.
The special features had me at "hello," because they offered a blooper reel, which, as far as I’m concerned, should be a required element to any DVD. The deleted and extended scenes aren’t particularly interesting, other than offering one more chance to view Gosling’s amazing performance. The disc also offers the music video to Rhymefest’s soundtrack song 'Wanted,' which, unfortunately, looks like a high school talent show entry and is only worth watching for unintentional comedy.
Commentary by director Ryan Fleck and writer Anna Boden is a must-listen for any aspiring low-budget filmmakers. While explaining just how they managed to put this film together in 23 days, they also offer some fun insider information – for example, we learn that the actor who plays Dunne’s brother is a real life teacher who Gosling shadowed to get inspired for the role.