Half Nelson, directed and co-written by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, achieves a human complexity and genuine heartfelt emotion that has restored (at least for the moment) my faith in American Independent film (and I’m not talking about Kevin Smith or Tarantino wannabes). Ryan Gosling stars as the High School history teacher Dan Dunne, who just happens to be a base-head. Dunne is flanked by his students of many races, inner city students in Brooklyn High School, the kind of kids Hollywood films often save from the evil clutches of gang warfare striving to simplify their plight concerning poverty and race.
But Half Nelson doesn’t favor easy stereotypes. At the center of Dunne’s teaching world is Drey, played by newcomer Shreeka Epps, in a performance that displays a true understanding of devotion and patience. When Drey finds Dunne cracked out in the bathroom stall, their relationship changes from student/teacher to something much more complex and tender. Their trials and tribulations follow different routes, but Drey and Dunne seem to be connected by their will to see the good in other people, including each other. Drey knows that temptation (in the form of Drug Dealer Frank played by Anthony Mackie) exists, but the beauty of the film resides in the filmmaker’s patience in allowing this child to experience life in transition, in turn having the courage to change during the process. One person’s drug addiction and another’s solitary bike ride hold equal parts fear, panic, peace, and heartache, images flushed with deeper emotion than words could ever express.
Half Nelson provides the basis for a of dialectical discussion about the process of of history and opposing forces, friendship and authority, and most importantly, intervention and loyalty. Allowing one’s self to be drawn in to such a fascinating piece of filmmaking (themes, aesthetics) penetrates a certain apathy found in current American cinema, where often, the rush to figure out/complete the end result is sadly far more important than the process itself.