A review of “Half Nelson” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ****

Rating: R for drug use, profanity and mature themes

Run Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

 

 

Ryan Gosling’s astonishing talent enhances this unexpectedly captivating and disturbing drama.

Gosling dazzles as Brooklyn middle school teacher Dan Dunne, a gentle soul reaching out to inner city kids with the unique gift of caring. Dan is knight in shining armor to a group of students facing harsh choices on life’s mean streets, his dedication extending to coaching a makeshift girl’s basketball team with conviction and humor.

Too good to be true? You betcha. Hero by day and crack whore by night, Dan is smoking away his future with the same brilliant intensity he brings to his work.

It’s a matter of time before one of his kids gets wise and she does, spying Dan in the girl’s locker room with crack-pipe in hand. Thirteen-year old Drey’s (Shareeka Epps) unsettling discovery is the improbable glue that bonds two lost souls together in a curious meeting of the minds; latch-key kid and crackhead trying to get it right.

Gosling’s performance is a revelation, every bit as powerful as his outstanding turn as Jewish neo-Nazi Danny Balint in 2001’s “The Believer”. As Dan’s half-baked, questionable-company evenings intensify the fissures of pain and resignation etch themselves on his face with potent subtlety.

Epps matches Gosling step for step with vulnerable adolescent dignity, the victim of a dead-end neighborhood and a deadbeat dad (Anthony Mackie) who wants back in for all the wrong reasons.

Players are sketched in sharp relief, strong and spare and reeking of latent self-destruction. Kudos to writer / director Ryan Fleck for keeping it real – no fairy-tale endings and no quick cinematic fixes. Great stuff.