Saturday, March 23, 2019

Half Nelson Tackles Two Troubled Human Beings With Remarkable Levels of Nuance

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a good teacher. He's maybe not the best teacher ever but he's passionate about what he teaches his Middle School students, clearly has a dedication to the material he teaches and has some real personality when he's teaching to his students. However, as an everyday human being, Dunne is more of a complex person as he struggles with the sickness of addiction. Cocaine is his drug of choice and he takes it regularly, to the point that one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), catches him in the middle of a drug trip in one of the school's locker room. Believe it or not, this moment leads to an unusual friendship between the two of them, as Dan starts to look out for Drey, who has her own set of problems at home mainly stemming from the sudden re-emergence of Frank (Anthony Mackie), a drug dealer that Drey's brother used to sell for, in her life.

Both Half Nelson and Sugar are the first two directorial efforts from Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (though Fleck is only given credit on Half Nelson for some reason) and they both share the common trait of being tales that could easily have become schmaltzy movie-of-the-weeks in lesser hands. One can easily imagine a Million Dollar Arm-esque White Savior movie emerging from a version of Half Nelson where Dan helps solve all of Drey's issues and eventually learns that, while he thought he was changing her life, gosh darn it, it turns out she was changing his life! How about that!  I can practically picture the poster for such a project and it makes me want to vomit for days on end.

Luckily, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck go in a more complex direction with this story that's quite fitting for a tale that's tackling the complex world of living with addiction head on. Among the traits that help Half Nelson stand out as especially thoughtful in handling such serious subject matter is how it makes sure both Dan and Drey get defined as people beyond just their individual struggles. Addiction is not the sole characteristic that Dan is known for and the same can be said for how a difficult home life isn't the singular element defining Drey entirely. Those parts of their lives certainly impact them heavily as human beings, but Boden & Fleck make sure there's more going on here with both of our lead characters than just their biggest personal woes.

Half Nelson constantly avoids shoehorning either Dan or Drey into simple caricatures, which ends up making scenes dedicated to their most tumultuous moments really land with appropriately affecting impact. This is particularly true of Dan, a man we see on numerous occasions see being a fine teacher who shows a genuinely attentive attitude towards each of his students. He seems to have everything together in these scenes depicting him as an educator to the youth, which just makes other scenes where he's struggling with or engaging in his addiction just so harrowing to watch. Dan isn't the typical one-note caricature of someone suffering from a form of addiction that one finds in many Hollywood features and that's very much a compliment.

This ability to allow Dan to show nuance in behavior is extremely reflective of how addiction manifests in the real world to a haunting degree. This kind of character is one Ryan Gosling excels at portraying in one of his first major dramatic acting turns (Half Nelson came out all the way back in 2006). Gosling portrays both sides of Dan with conviction, as a teacher, Gosling has a charming sly wit that makes it totally believable why his students would be enamored with him while Gosling brings some refreshing levels of distinctiveness to depicting Dan's most forlorn moments that take a cue from the script in eschewing conventional depictions of people grappling with addiction. Gosling's exceptional work as an actor in the 2010s has been defined by going in unexpected but compelling directions, whether that's in his buttoned-up tortured soul in First Man, a quiet killer in Drive or a goofball wannabe Humphery Bogart in The Nice Guys and that trait is alive and well in his outstanding work in Half Nelson.

Playing opposite Gosling for much of the film is Shareeka Epps as Drey and she gives an overall terrific performance, particularly in scenes where she has to demonstrate her complicated feelings towards the recently increased presence of Frank in her life. Frank is a character who serves as another instance of Half Nelson taking surprisingly nuanced approaches to its character as both the screenplay and Anthony Mackie's performance refuse to pigeonhole this guy as a run-of-the-mill antagonistic criminal. There's plenty of shades of grey to be found throughout Half Nelson, an Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck directorial effort whose amazing performances and thoughtful writing ensures that it schools plenty of other weaker dramas covering similar storytelling territory.

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