A terrific performance by Ryan Gosling is the chief but hardly sole reason to embrace “Half Nelson,” a first narrative feature by director Ryan Fleck, who wrote it with Anna Boden. Sympathetic but toughly observed pic avoids melodrama in the potentially hyperbolic tale of a white Brooklyn middle-school teacher losing his own battle with drugs while trying to mentor an African-American student whose family has been torn apart by drug dealing. Avoiding rote inspirational notes as well as boyz-in-the-hood violence, scrupulously low-key drama nonetheless builds to a powerful impact. Unappetizing subject matter will require strong marketing emphasis on critical praise.
The alert intelligence Gosling has shown in disparate roles from “The Believer’s” neo-Nazi teen to “The Notebook’s” ornery romantic is put to ideal use here. His Dan Dunne is a 30-ish public school history teacher by day, engaging and well-liked by his students, though frequently at odds with the principal for straying from the official curriculum.
By night, however, he trolls bars, getting drunk and doing drugs, his bleary-eyed demeanor noticeable in class the next morning. He’s kinda-sorta dating a pretty Latina fellow teacher (Monique Curnen), but is likely to bungle that as surely as he turns off bar pickups by talking philosophy and politics ad nauseum.
Also coach for the school girl’s basketball team, Dunne is found semiconscious in a locker room stall after a game by 13-year-old Drey (Shareeka Epps) — he’s just smoked crack. Her deadbeat dad’s a no-show in giving her a ride home, so Dunne fills in, after he’s come down a bit. From this unlikely start an extracurricular friendship begins.
The bright, serious Drey has been around enough drug activity to be unfazed, given an older brother doing prison time as fall guy for local dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie), who returns the favor by kicking some cash toward her household. What with mom (Karen Chilton) regularly pulling double-shifts, latchkey kid Drey could use a little substitute parenting — even from Dunne.
Simultaneously, Frank decides to play a more active quasi-paternal role. Worried about Frank’s influence on Drey, Dunne tries to intimidate the other man into retreat. But Frank isn’t having it, and Dunne’s headed toward a substance-abusive bottoming-out anyway.
Astute screenplay doesn’t spell out why or how Dunne got into such a state of self-destruction, though there are hints. Gosling pretty much fills in the blanks by sheer lived-in presence, lending Dunne an inner logic to the myriad contradictions. Dunne’s rapport with the students, and Epps’ figure in particular, is wonderfully credible.
Epps (a holdover from “Gowanus, Brooklyn,” the 2002 Sundance prize-winning short whose concept creators expanded into this feature form) is convincing as a 13-going-on-45-year-old whose strength of character ultimately carries the day. Mackie is also excellent, generating enough ambiguity that both Frank’s good intentions and predatory ones can co-exist comfortably — at least so far as he’s concerned.
Archival clips showing key moments in the history of the Civil Rights struggles — a class topic and one of Dunne’s passionate interests — lend the story a larger dimension without getting too heavyhanded. Other classroom lessons, however, press obvious points.
Shot on location in Brooklyn, pic’s presentation is unobtrusive and straightforward, with largely handheld camerawork and a very good original score by Broken Social Scene abetted by smartly chosen tracks by other artists.