On the surface, "Half Nelson" sounds like one of those blandly inspirational movies that practically cries out for a gold star. It's about Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), a white middle school history teacher who works in a mostly black Brooklyn neighborhood, and his 13-year-old pupil Drey (Shareeka Epps), who also plays on the girls' basketball team he coaches.
The stage is set for a cozy racial fable about togetherness, except for one thing: Nothing comes easy in this world.
Dan, whose well-to-do parents were '60s radicals, is a crack addict, and Drey's brother is in jail. When, early on, she discovers Dan in a school bathroom stall drugged out and clenching his crack pipe, the look she registers is a potent mix of sympathy and disillusionment.
It would have been easy for the film's director, Ryan Fleck, and his co-writer, Anna Boden, to melodramatize this moment. We expect to see Drey blackmail Dan, but she never does. That's not what this movie is about. One of the main strengths of "Half Nelson" is the plainspoken way it conveys the miseries of its people. This is obviously a spectacle Drey has seen many times before in her young life.
We already know a lot about Drey just from the impassive way she carries herself. She has steeled herself for the worst, and yet her eyes have a glint that lets us know she is not yet lost. Dan is right, despite his own struggles, to keep her away from the neighborhood's dope pushers even if he can't resist them himself.
Dan's nemesis, and alter ego, is Frank (Anthony Mackie), Drey's brother's friend and the local dealer. In his own warped way, Frank wants to help the girl by giving her work in his operation. In the film's most original scene, Dan intends to scare Frank off, but instead, because he is a junkie, he succumbs.
The only focus in Dan's life, apart from his habit, is his teaching. And even though it's difficult to believe that any school would not fire a teacher as clearly strung out as Dan is, we can see why he stays with it. His deep need to connect with his kids sets him apart from the wreckage of his life.
It was a mistake for Fleck to interject Dan's history lessons with documentary footage of Salvatore Allende's overthrow by the CIA or Mario Savio's 1964 exhortations at a student rally in Berkeley. It plays into the film's unfortunate tendency to turn Dan into a martyr.
But a martyr for what? Are we supposed to think that he represents the warped legacy of the '60s? Or is he a casualty of his parents' generation? If so, then why is that generation portrayed as all washed up? There's something weirdly punitive in all this. Fleck extends more sympathy to the local pusher than he does to Dan's parents.
The film would also be better off without Fleck's hyperactive camerawork to clue us that we are watching something "real." The herky-jerkiness detracts from the studied loveliness of Epps's performance and competes with Gosling's intensity, which already is borderline over the top.
But "Half Nelson" is best where it counts the most – in its recognition of how difficult it will be for Dan and Drey to turn their lives around. There is something honorable about the way the filmmakers face the truth without giving in to despair. Grade: B+
• Rated R for drug content throughout, language, and some sexuality.