October 5, 2006

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Half Nelson (R)
Ryan Gosling plays an inspirational, motivating, protective-of-his-students teacher who also happens to be a crackhead in Half Nelson, a dark but satisfying story about two people barely keeping it together.

Dan (Gosling) pretty much wakes up for two things giving truly engaging lectures to his junior high school students and smoking crack. He also does other drugs if crack's not available.

Occasionally, when those two aspects of his life are going well, he's also able to work on an illustrated children's book he's putting together. But even he doesn't seem convinced this venture will ever come through. Alone in his squalid apartment and shakily lighting up a cigarette as soon as he wakes up in the morning, he conveys the image of a man two steps away from shrieking insanity.

Whatever interior horrors plague Dan, we might tend to think they pale in comparison to the problems of Drey (Shareeeka Epps). Her brother is in jail and her mother is constantly at work as an EMT to keep them financially afloat. Warily, Drey and her mother take money from Frank (Anthony Mackie), the neighborhood criminal who had something to do with Drey's brother's incarceration. Her mother worries about but clearly doesn't have the energy, time or financial ability to do anything about Frank's presence in Drey's life. Frank seems to be always, ever so slightly, nudging Drey in the direction out of a life of crime. Not out of maliciousness, we believe, but because it is how he can help.

Drey admires Dan, answering questions in his class and playing on the basketball team he coaches. After one game, Dan has a surprise conversation with an ex-girlfriend (Tina Holmes) and winds up in the girls' bathroom, getting high. Drey walks in on him. They are both horrified that she has seen him like this and yet, like so many unpleasant things in their world, it becomes another piece of reality. Drey finds herself acting as a caretaker to her soul-sick teacher (helping him to his car, giving him water). When sober, Dan makes similar weak and ultimately flawed attempts to protect her from the criminal world that is slowly blotting out her future.

I called this movie satisfying and yet nothing is resolved. Instead, the pleasure of this movie is in watching two clearly gifted actors Gosling (a real surprise here) and newcomer Epps. She is strong and dangerously secure in herself (we get the sense that Drey would be a hard girl to change if she didn't absolutely want to be changed) and yet Epps gives us a conflicted character who is still in many ways a child. Her Drey can look down on Dan, be surprisingly adult and nonjudgmental about his drug use and be heartbroken by his flaws all at the same time. Gosling meanwhile gives a compelling performance as a thoroughly exhausted man. Without ever explaining himself, he makes us understand his situation, even if we don't approve or particularly sympathize with it. A-

Amy Diaz