Ryan Gosling (The Notebook) plays Dan, a young, hip, and rebellious teacher working in the inner city trying his best to influence and at times inspire his students in the most positive light he can. Meanwhile he’s slipping deeper and deeper into a harsh drug addiction that continues to bring himself and others around him down. One evening after a school basketball game, one of his students, Drey, played by new-comer Shareeka Epps catches her coach/teacher getting high in a stall in the women's locker room. The relationship the two of them form is powerful and probably way beyond the realm of friendship you or I could ever imagine.
Half Nelson is a film about disillusionment. Gosling’s character is disillusioned with his life and where it’s headed, but even more so, he’s disillusioned with the world around him and thus feels inadequate and useless, which compels him to fall further into a major drug addiction. As Gosling’s character tells the children in his junior high history class, the culprit is the "machine" that "keeps all of us down". The problem is, we’re all part of this machine (i.e. the white man, the government, prisons, etc.); but, as the ingeniously interspersed readings of civil rights history remind us, and as he informs and reminds his kids, we all have a choice. In essence, this choice comes down to how much we allow the machine to affect us; how much of ourselves will we allow it to take, and how much will we give to help change it? Anyone whose real, who isn't lying to themselves or living in a fantasy world, can't help but appreciate this film and identify with the two lead characters of Dan and Drey. They are characters that require thought and time to understand fully. These are REAL people folks, real people in real situations.
From its realistic and perfectly cast leads, to its gritty, nothing but the bare essentials cinematography, Half Nelson is a near perfect film; the kind of film for anyone who is afraid to go to the movies, deterred by the very genre this film enlivens: the inspirational drama. First time feature film director and co-writer Ryan Fleck steers way clear of the over sentimentality that so easily could’ve inundated the pitch-perfect, so unpretentious it could've been a documentary screenplay.
Gosling and Epps give performances of rare and subtle brilliance which undoubtedly contribute to the film’s powerful, stirring statement and inspirational closing act. Their characters are both real and restrained. Epps is more than believable as a confused, but strong and confident girl struggling with adolescence and the depravity of the world around her. In Gosling's case, this is quite possibly an Oscar worthy performance. A true case of less is more... a LOT more. This is a young man who has super-star written all over him.
One last thing that slapped me hard in the face was the perfectly timed and powerful soundtrack. "Broken Social Scene" (a very apropos name, by the way) adds several, exclusive tracks that just add that extra bit of "oomf" precisely where the film needs it; especially during the crescendo of the film that, without a word of dialogue spoken, is one of the most brilliant, powerful and telling scenes of recent memory. Along with other tracks performed by various artists peppered throughout at just the right time, it reminded me very much of a Cameron Crowe film (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) in that regard.
Although not my favorite film of the year, it's easily in my top five, best of the year - maybe even top two. If you can find Half Nelson playing near you, I highly encourage you to get out and see this soon. You won't easily find better performances, storyline or fresh directing anywhere else in the theater right now. Half Nelson is about as close to a ten out of ten as I can get.
IMDb.com - full cast and crew
FLIXSTER PROFILE for Half Nelson