Half Nelson


Nope. No Wrestling.

Main Cast: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps

Director: Ryan Fleck

Half Nelson. When I think of that term I think of wrestling. I have no idea why, I don’t follow wrestling and I never have, but it seems a meaning that has wormed its way into the collective conscious of, well, at least me. So even after Ryan Gosling was nominated for an Oscar for the 2006 film Half Nelson I was still unable to get rid of my image of him in a wrestling hold, despite knowing full well the movie had nothing whatsoever to do with the sport. All I can say is, wow, I am stupid. I still have no idea why they called the film Half Nelson, but I should certainly have seen it sooner.

Ryan Gosling stars as Dan Dunne. Mr. Dunne teaches middle school. Let me interject that I think middle school teachers are full-on saints. My feelings are undoubtedly swayed by parenting a middle-school aged child. I can’t imagine a more difficult time of life or a more difficult age to teach. Mr. Dunne does have problems with his job, but not because of the age of his students. No, his biggest problem is that he’s a crack addict. When that’s one of your problems, most of the others sort of fall into the background.

Half Nelson takes us through Mr. Dunne’s inevitable downward spiral as he desperately tries to manage his drug addiction and buck the educational system at the same time. Caught up in these events is an unlikely participant/observer in the form of a thirteen-year-old student, Drey (Shareeka Epps). Drey is on the cusp of making some serious decisions about her life, decisions that she’s too young to face, but which her life circumstances make inevitable. Mr. Dunne does not teach at an upscale school with privileged students. He teaches kids whose daily lives are likely to be filled with anger and loss and cultural dissonance. As a part of Mr. Dunne’s basketball team it looks like Drey might beat the odds and escape the cycle of violence and drugs that surround her – but she can’t do that on her own. The emotional push of the movie involves just what it could possibly be that a drug addicted teacher and a young girl teetering on the edge of giving in to the pressure to become part of the ugly world around her have to give to each other. And will it be enough to save either one?

There are no easy answers here. Dan Dunne is no role model. He cares about his students and getting them to think about things from the core out. He doesn’t hate his job. But he’s weak. His drug use isn’t new, and he has little will to confront it as a problem. Drey has a mother who loves her, but struggles to support her. She is often left to fend for herself, and bad influences are around every corner in her neighborhood. She is a thoughtful girl who really looks at what her options are – the benefits of joining the street trade are appealing and immediate, but she isn’t convinced. How can these two incredibly different, isolated people connect in any positive way?

The real heart of Half Nelson is in the acting. Both Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps give absolutely stunning performances. Gosling isn’t afraid to take chances with his character, making the audience both loathe and feel for him. We see his commitment to his job, we see that he honestly cares about what happens to these kids, but he’s also a drug addled a-hole who hurts people far more often than he helps them. Somehow Gosling pulls those disparate traits together to give us a character that we want to like, we want him to change, we want him to be different because underneath we think he’s worth it. Gosling’s hangdog look when he’s weak and guilty, his confusion over his role in the life of Drey, and his swagger when he’s high are all perfect. He nails this performance with both the over-the-top behavior of a drug addict out of control and the subtle nuance of a man trying to hold on to some piece of a life that he sees draining away faster than he can handle.

Epps is also excellent. Without the experience of a more seasoned actor, her line delivery and emotional range lack subtlety. But she feels very real – the actors around her draw her out and Drey becomes a character that we really want to see succeed. She is someone we do like; there is no underlayer of world-weary ugliness in her. She’s a little girl, trying to help her family, lost in a world where nothing is unspoiled. Her connection with Gosling is absolutely heartbreaking- she is so earnest, and so emotionally closed by circumstance, that when she reaches out we wish she had chosen someone whose baggage is not so dangerous. But that isn’t how life goes and these two wounded people don’t have a lot of other options. Whether or not their connection will be of any value is another question entirely.

Bottom line – Half Nelson is an unflinching, often ugly and sad, look at one man’s drug addiction and the young girl whose life it manages through circumstance (and perhaps serendipity) to affect. It’s filled with drug use, bad language, and adult situations (don’t watch with the kiddies). It also features amazing performances by Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling. Gosling is fearless in his portrayal and Epps nearly breaks your heart with hers. It’s an excellent film, not for the faint of heart, but excellent. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with wrestling. Highly recommended.

Half Nelson is streaming on almost every free platform out there, including Tubi, Crackle, and the Roku Channel.

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