Usually when there’s a movie about a teacher working in an urban neighborhood, I immediately figure it’s going to be a rehash of “Stand and Deliver” or “Lean on Me.” Ryan Fleck’s engaging “Half Nelson” is sort of like those films…if the teachers in them liked to smoke crack. Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunn, a charismatic guy who’s loved by all his students. He’s cool with them and they’re cool right back. That is until his star student Drey catches him smoking crack in the locker room.
I know what I’ve written seems like “Half Nelson” might be a silly movie, but it’s not. Gosling plays Dunn perfectly, imbuing him with horrible, druggie habits but still sparkling enough to gain our empathy. Come to think of it, Dunn isn’t very likeable at all. He veers far from the assigned lectures as you might expect from someone high as a kite. He doesn’t sleep and often alienates other teachers. However Gosling pulls it off and we root for Dunn. We also root for Drey, an intellegent girl who strikes up an unlikely friendship with her teacher (who is also her basketball coach), even after catching him in an unfortunate situation.
Even though Dunn is fully aware of his drug problem, he doesn’t really try to curb it. There’s none of those “I’m gonna quit this time” type of scenes and I’m thankful for that. His problems have been with him for a while we learn through contact with his family and a former love. Yet Dunn, as screwed up as he is, really wants to make a difference. He takes a special interest in Drey and even goes so far as to put his life in danger by telling a local drug dealer to stay away from Drey. The scene is ironic because Dunn’s dealer is there, but we believe in Dunn and his desire to help Drey so much, the scene somehow works.
Fleck manages to mix the storylines which include drug abuse, political commentary and making good choices about your life’s path flawlessly. Whereas someone like Spike Lee often mixes in political messages with all the subtlety of a Mack truck, Fleck gets his perspectives on the need for current political change in by actually inserting them into the storyline. The strain of working in a poor urban area combined with feelings of not being able to make a difference are major forces for Dunn and he uses drugs to cope with the pressure. His life is marred by lost love and an alcoholic family and his life is falling apart due to drugs. But in the end. “Half Nelson” pulls it all together with a closing scene that’s very touching and highly memorable.