In the past, I never really gave actor Ryan Gosling a chance. I saw him as yet another Hollywood pretty boy, placing him in the same league as The Fast and the Furious star Paul walker.
This was a mistake.
Not only is Gosling leagues ahead of someone like Walker, he no longer even occupies the same universe. Gosling’s performance in Half Nelson is so strong, and endearing, that it has forced me to do a complete 180 degree turn in regard to this young man who can only be described as a truly gifted actor.
Half Nelson tells the story of Dan Dunne, a brilliant and driven high school teacher who not only wants his students to do well in his class but also to see things (particularly the subject of history) in a new light. His passion, however, hides a growing drug habit that threatens to ruin his career as it begins to creep into his working life.
When a student (Shareeka Epps) from his class discovers him in a comprising position on school property, it places both in an awkward situation. Fortunately, this single moment of weakness from Dunne is the genesis which allows a unique – and much needed – friendship to develop between student and teacher.
Half Nelson is a sophisticated character drama that explores intense loneliness and a deep seated longing for fulfillment. Best described as a slow burner with art house tendencies it requires one to invest (intellectually) in the characters on screen.
As a film it never force-feeds its audience information but instead drops you into a series of situations that demand that you ‘suss’ things out for yourself. Or, at least try to. Why is Dunne so conflicted – both uplifting his students during the day and then destroying/losing himself at night? We are never given a solid answer, only pieces of the puzzle. An ex-girlfriend who is getting married, amongst others, may be a clue.
The same can be said of his student Drey. Coming from a broken home and with a brother in prison, her surroundings threaten to turn her into yet another statistic. What drives her to do the things she does, however, is never clear cut. Is it one factor or a combination of many? By not providing any definite answers Half Nelson asks for participation from the audience but this same technique may push others away.
As Dunne, Gosling’s performance is gripping; his portrayal of the troubled teacher is truly inspiring. He wants his students to succeed, to better themselves, and as an audience we buy into his idealism. When Dunne gives in to his drug habit I was equally saddened and often found myself questioning why/how he could be doing the detrimental things he was.
Half Nelson is a film that demands you give its characters space to develop and, ultimately, fall. It won’t be to everyone’s liking but Gosling’s Oscar nominated performance (Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role) is worth the ticket price alone.