I have to admit that Ryan Gosling would not be the first actor who comes to my mind when thinking of serious dramatic actors especially after the atrocious The Notebook (2004). Okay, it made me cry (a lot!) but it was horribly maudlin and manipulative. I didn't think much of him until I saw him in last year's Half Nelson where he plays a crack addicted history teacher working in a school in a troubled neighborhood in Brooklyn. I get what Rachel McAdams sees in this guy now.
The film, written by Anna Boden and her partner the director Ryan Fleck, explores the bond between an idealistic junior high school teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) and promising student Drey (Shareeka Epps) who accidentally happens upon Dan and uncovers his secret life when she catches him smoking crack in the locker room after a basketball game.
It also explores Drey's relationship with a charismatic drug dealer named Frank (Anthony Mackie) who initially appears to be taking Drey under his wing as an obligation to her older brother who's in jail for dealing for Frank. Unfortunately, Frank has his own plans for Drey, using the sweet faced girl as a drug courier.
Gosling impressed me with his understated performance and the complex ambiguity of his character. He's not a particularly nice guy and certainly doesn't play it that way despite the fact that Dunne teaches in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood riddled by drug dealers, is writing and illustrating a children's book on dialectics(!), coaches girls' basketball, has a weakness for cats and genuinely cares about the kids he teaches.
Yet this saintly image of Dan is belied by a character who also smokes crack in his off hours, trolls for drugs on the mean streets of Brooklyn, comes on to, and nearly sexually assaults, a fellow teacher who has befriended him, sleeps around most nights with strangers after a good old fashioned drunk, and alternates between treating Drey with special attentions (cooking her meals, driving her home after games, trying to keep her away from Frank) and then a junkie's post drug hangover scorn and abuse.
When he becomes aware of Frank's over zealous attention Dan actively tries to intercede by going to Frank's house and pleading with him to leave the girl alone. But Gosling is so self assured and matter of fact that it never descends into melodrama. When he comes face to face with Frank, he isn't a hero, just a skinny white guy walking into a veritable viper's nest of dealers and losers and you can almost read his thoughts that perhaps this wasn't the smartest of ideas. Instead of the inevitable violent confrontation you can see that Dan is somewhat charmed by the smooth talking Frank who is trying hard to win Dan over.
Dan doesn't cater to the kids. He is one of the few white faces in a largely black and Hispanic school. He doesn't condescend, or is overly nice, to them. When they screw up or act up he has no compunction telling them so or advising them to get lost when they annoy him.
And Drey watches out for him too, checking up on him when he doesn't show up at school, etc ... At every turn you dread that the plot will take a creepier or stereotypical turn: Frankie will sexually abuse Drey or Dan will turn out to be some sort of pedophile and not just an idealistic teacher who deeply cares about these kids. Rachel, Dan's ex, will save him, or that pretty Hispanic teacher will do it. Dan will kill Frank or Frank will harm Dan.
But no, it never goes there.
Nor are we reassured that everything will turn out well at the end. When Drey comes face to face with Dan during a routine delivery of crack to an unknown address and Dan calmly hands over the money, the look of resignation of Dan's face and the look of understated shame on Drey's is riveting ... this is enough of a shock to force both to try and change but as the film ends there seems to be no guarantee that Dan will kick his habit or Drey will keep off the streets and avoid her brother's fate.
Many times, the film took me to unexpected places, avoiding the obvious maudlin choices and stayed with me long after I saw it.
A note on the title which I found intriguing but was indecipherable to me when I first saw the film; here is director Ryan Fleck's explanation from an interview with movies.about.com:
“We knew we were intending to make a very subtle and evocative movie and one that doesn’t over-explain everything, and we thought the title should match that,” explains Fleck. “It’s just a metaphor. A half nelson is a wrestling hold, as you may or may not know, but it’s something you can escape from, even though it’s very tricky. It’s just like a metaphor for struggle. It works for addiction or political struggle or anything and that’s sort of it. It’s also a Miles Davis song that’s probably about the same thing. That’s it. (Laughing) But I’m starting to think with the success of Snakes on a Plane that we should have called it Crack in the Classroom or something like that.”