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Half Nelson

No, It’s Not a Wrestling Movie

Directed and co-written by Ryan Fleck, Half Nelson is the kind of independent filmmaking that deserves wider acclaim and commercial exposure. Focusing on the unlikely relationship between a junior schoolteacher with a drug problem and one his students, Half Nelson could have taken the path of least resistance toward formula and cliché (and a potentially larger budget). Instead, Fleck and his co-writer/producer, Anna Boden, take the story and the characters into unexpected directions. The often conflicted emotions they create for their characters and their circumstances never feels cheap or forced.

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a study in contradictions. By day, he's a history teacher who teaches mostly African-American students at an inner-city junior high school. Dan teaches his students about the Civil Rights movement with passion and idealism. By night, he's either coaching the girls' basketball team or getting wasted at local bars or nightclubs. Dan's problems are barely hinted at, but he's dived headlong into self-destruction through drugs (primarily cocaine) and alcohol. Dan's relationships with women are no better. Dan has a tentative relationship with another teacher, Isabel (Monique Curnen), but the reappearance of his ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Tina Holmes), becomes the latest in a long line of excuses Dan uses to pursue another alcohol and drug-fueled binge.

Dan's life takes a turn when Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of his students and a player on his basketball team, discovers him in a bathroom stall after a game, blissed out and passed out on crack. Drey helps Dan clean himself up and, in return, Dan drives Drey home. Acting first out of self-preservation then out of something more, Dan begins to learn about Drey's home life, a non-existent, deadbeat father, a world-weary mother who works several jobs to make ends meet, an older brother, Mike (Collins Pennie), in prison, and the stand-in role model/father, Frank (Anthony Mackie), the neighborhood drug dealer whose paternalistic interest in Drey hides less altruistic motivations.

With the premise, characters, and situations sketched out, Half Nelson seems headed in a predictable direction, toward Dan's redemption by becoming a friend and role model to Drey. In short, Dan wants to save himself, find some larger purpose, by saving Drey. Of course, his drug addiction (and as drug addictions go, it gets worse over time) and Frank's desire to lead Drey down the same path her brother traveled, prove to be significant, if not impossible, obstacles for Dan to overcome.

But Fleck and his co-writer Anna Boden upend what could have been a standard “white man/mentor saving an African-American student from hardship” storyline. They aren't interested in following the typical conventions of the redemption drama, instead taking Half Nelson into more ambitious territory where Drey is less victim than knowing actor, less in need in saving (she does, to some extent) and more the (potential) savior for a seriously flawed adult. In that, Drey proves to be singularly unique character, a self-aware young adult attuned to the possibilities and consequences of her actions and the actions of others. That doesn't stop her from wanting what all children want, the unconditional love, affection, and appreciation of the adults in her life.

Besides an ending that some may not find satisfying, Half Nelson has other storytelling flaws, including a third-act that drags and the late introduction of Dan's parents, Jo (Deborah Rush) and Russ (Jay O. Sanders). Dan's painful night with his family all too readily places some, perhaps significant responsibility on them for Dan's drug and alcohol problems. It's a pity, especially considering the screenplay's earlier subtlety remained the better, less obvious approach.

Flaws aside, Half Nelson has a great deal to recommend it to indie audiences, beginning with Ryan Gosling's typically intense, authentic performance as the edgy, twitchy, often hungover Dan. Fleck and Boden surpassed themselves in picking Shareeka Epps for the role of Drey. Fleck and Boden ask Epps to show vulnerability, toughness, loneliness, and longing, and Epps pulls it off remarkably well, especially for a young, relatively inexperienced actress. Epps has had some practice, though. She appeared in the short film version, "Gowanus, Brooklyn", which won the Grand Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at the 2004 Sundance film festival.

Side note: There's no wrestling per se in Half Nelson. Ryan Fleck borrowed the title from a classic Miles David be-bop song. Instead, Fleck wanted to use the phrase as a metaphor for what both characters, Dan and Drey, have to struggle through, drug addiction for Dan and inner-city life for Drey.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars