At first glance you could write this film off as yet another teacher v pupils “drama”, usually involving a clash of class or race (or both, as Hollywood tends to make links there). The teacher struggles to gain the trust of the pupils, they get frustrated, then break some barriers, a learning montage ensues before another challenge is thrown in their path which will inevitably be solved for an uplifting finale (see current release Freedom Writers. White female teaches black class. Not at all like Michelle Pfieffer did back in ‘95 with Dangerous Minds - and she had Coolio on the soundtrack. Beat that Hilary Swank).
What you don’t want to do is stash Half Nelson into the same category. Initially you might want to. There is a skinny white teacher, Dan (Ryan Gosling) sitting in front of a racially-opposite classroom. Skinny white teacher wants to change people. Skinny white teacher struggles. But the struggle has nothing to do with the kids, or the other teachers. It’s because skinny white teacher happens to be addicted to crack.
So begins a low key drama following Dan’s attempts to change and his unlikely friendship with a thirteen year-old pupil, Drey (Shareeka Epps). The pace is undeniably sluggish - this is no ‘here’s your plot, this is an event, isn’t it all tied up and easy to follow’ film. But at some point in the first thirty minutes I suddenly found myself completely and utterly absorbed with the characters. And I totally blame the actors.
Ryan Gosling’s best actor Oscar nomination is entirely justified. The lovely 25 year-old fills his performance with little ticks, cracking his knuckles, wiping his lips on his shirt collar, wiping the sweat from his druggy brow. He kicks ass as a teacher, his rapport with the children full of charm and wit - believably so. And under everything you can sense his bubbling frustration. The guy talks constantly to his students about the importance of change, yet is painfully aware of the crappy world he lives in, and miserably unable to shake his own addiction.
His unexpected friend is played by the frighteningly brilliant teenager Shareeka Epps (unfortunately it looks like she’s about to be shamefully wasted in Alien Vs Predator 2.) She plays Drey as a confident, streetwise teen with a gentle streak of vulnerability as she’s pulled between a friendship with the flawed but caring Dan, and a drug-dealing, yet potentially more stable, friend of her family.
This film has lots of components that usually irritate me. The over-done teacher/pupil genre, the ‘adult/child’ buddy movie (children aren’t that great to be friends with, you know. They’re stupid) and a drug addicted ‘hero’ (there’s such an over-reliance on using drugs to make your characters all like edgy and cool and stuff. It’s not edgy or cool - it’s boring. Who cares if they’re addicted to anything? I had a phase where I really was unable to eat just a single Mingle, but did I make myself the central character of a film and brood around with my affliction? No.) But via stupendous acting, a temperate touch from writer/director Ryan Fleck that creates a mellow mood to match that of the characters, and some flickers of comedy and watery-eye woe, Half Nelson pushes through all of my usual grievances and emerges as an original, engaging piece of work.
Not your multiplex-filler, but stick with this film and you will be highly rewarded. Half Nelson clocks up a worthy CF3. Plus I’ve now found a new young actor to “admire”. Gosling looks good with a beard.