Stars: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps
Director: Ryan Fleck
*** (out of five)
Half Nelson is the very definition of a Sundance movie — an independently produced character study, driven by a performance of tremendous power, that’s got just enough edge to keep us from realizing how utterly derivative the whole thing really is.
This observation in no way diminishes Ryan Gosling’s star turn as a New York City history teacher with a blazing devotion to education that’s matched only by his self-destructive behaviour.
Half Nelson plants this walking disaster in the middle of a struggling middle school, where he does his best to impart the lessons of human history to a classroom of distracted kids. He’s also the girls’ basketball coach, which offers him a window into the crisis of a player (Shareeka Epps) who seems poised to make some really bad life decisions.
But their teacher-student dynamic isn’t quite that simple.
Epps holds the screen with an easy, unforced confidence, but the movie is all about Gosling: His portrayal as a man barely holding himself together is enough to give Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s overly familiar screenplay the charge of grimy authenticity it needs to distinguish itself from all the other stories of uplifting teachers, spiralling addicts and bright students who need saving.
(Fleck also directed; Boden doubles as producer and editor.) It’s probably true that there are plenty of good teachers in the world who enjoy the occasional crack pipe; it’s just the first time we’ve ever seen one be treated as a human being in an American film. Which, I guess, is enough of a twist to make Half Nelson worth a look, even if you never doubt where the story is headed.
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