Eye For Film >> Movies >> Half Nelson (2006) Film Review
Reviewed by: Darren Amner
Half Nelson is a witty, intelligent character study of a broken man. The man is question is Dan Dunne who teaches history at a Brooklyn Junior High School. Dunne runs his classes his way, doesn't follow procedures and pretty much ignores the curriculum that dictates the way he teaches, much to the dislike of the school's principal. However, Dunne's method of teaching makes him extremely popular with the students, especially a quiet black girl called Drey (Shareeka Epps).
Dunn is a bit of a loner and Drey too is a lonely soul. Both are looking for friendship and seem to have quiet a lot in common. It's their mutual bond that helps them both search for a meaning to their often chaotic lives.
I have always seen Ryan Gosling (Dunn) as a younger man's Edward Norton, a versatile performer who disappears into every character he plays. Every movement or facial expression adds to his performance and delivery and it's hard to take your eyes off the screen when his sheer presence is so powerful. Dan Dunne is a well-written character and the script gives Gosling plenty to chew on. In class he displays confidence and warmth to his pupils but outside of the classroom it's quite the opposite - he chooses to numb the world around him with drink, drugs and meaningless sex.
By leading such a mixed lifestyle Dan finds it hard to get a balance, and through desperation after a basketball game at school he is caught smoking crack. He is found comatose in the locker room by Drey, whose own family have been torn apart by drugs. The two form a friendship that sees them educate each other in various ways about how second chances are rare and you should take better advantage of them. For Dunne rehab never worked; he now uses drugs to get by, the kids to keep him focused.
Half Nelson is a believable film, depressing at times but smart and moving. Director Ryan Fleck has shunned the chance to make an inspirational drama and chosen to make a movie that feels very real and fresh. Gosling gives a mesmerising display and he seemingly switches roles with Epps as the wise head on younger shoulders teaches her tutor the importance of life and of being accountable for the choices we make.
Epps has her work cut out playing off the enigmatic Gosling but she is more than up to the task. Whilst Dunn is spiralling down a road of self-destruction Drey is blossoming into a young woman. Very aware of her family's troubled past she is trying her utmost to make the right decisions for her to better her own life.
Half Nelson will do well on the festival circuit and will play well off good word of mouth, which a film of this scale needs. Its subject matter has been done a million times over but this is a fresh take on a tired subject and demands your attention. My only complaint is it may be a little too dreary for some people and I did at times become frustrated with its pacing, but overall persistence will be the key to your viewing pleasure. Move over Dangerous Minds - this is a true high school movie; accept no substitutions, this is the real deal. A lesson to be learned if you're willing to sit down and take the test.Reviewed on: 19 Oct 2006