It’s the end of summer; time to dump all those films that wouldn’t hold up as summer blockbusters and gear up for award season. Lucky we have our trusty indie theatres, saving us from the boredom of sitting through paint-by-numbers fare, by offering more festival circuit darlings. This week sees the opening of the much-hailed Half Nelson. While most praise is bestowed upon star Ryan Gosling—justly so—this film is much more than one man. One man does not make a movie, and we are treated to one of the years best here. From the gritty, hand-held camerawork, emotion-wrought close-ups, nuanced acting, and realism to the stresses of life, every facet is utilized to the utmost effectiveness. Credit newcomers Ryan Fleck and his co-writer Anna Boden for crafting a beautiful story about humanity and the strong will for the survival of others overpowering any self-loathing one might weigh himself down with.
Gosling is truly a tour-de-force in terms of his multi-faceted character Dan Dunne. He is a man who has gone through the worst of his addition to crack, and been through rehab only to find that he still can’t handle life without the crutch. Dunne has decided to live for the moment and in doing so has to periodically wake up to the rest of his life passing him by. As Frank (a great performance from Anthony Mackie as a conflicted drug dealer) says at one point, baseheads don’t have friends. Gosling says his addiction is in his control, that the children ground him. Unfortunately he just doesn’t see how he pushes those he loves away at every turn. When his secret is revealed to one of his students, there is a revelation. Someone has come into his world that can help him, who knows his problem and can try and steer him back to life. This young girl, however, is on the brink of a downfall herself; seeing her mother work double shifts to stay afloat while being helped by the drug dealer who was the cause for her brother’s incarceration. Why not help out and make some fast cash?
Shareeka Epps is the young girl who has discovered a kindred spirit in her teacher and coach. Her character Drey sees an intelligent individual, trying to make a difference in the world while also being tied to the underbelly of addiction. The two live parallel lives, both knowing the natural progression of the others’ circumstances and trying to stop that path for the other while slowly falling off the cliff themselves. Epps is amazingly real as Drey. She has all the emotions of a Middle Schooler bottled up inside, trying to survive without a older figure steadily in her life. Her innocence and purity, however, does come out when talking with Gosling, as does his. They can open their souls to each other and know they won’t be judged. This relationship is why it is so heartwrenching emotionally to watch the climax of the film, when we see that fate takes us to room 50 where all our demons are released.
Yes the performances are acted to perfection, but much credit needs to be given to the writers. Gosling and Epps are layered emotionally with careful attention to detail. The film is told in short snippets of life’s travels, and each moment peels back a layer that has been buried underneath thick skin. A thirteen-year-old girl should not have the immense weight which Drey has unleashed on herself. The journeys she takes with her teacher, her mother, her brother, and Frank show the world through her eyes, and the bleakness that is so close she doesn’t think she can avoid it. As far as Dunne goes, when we see his tries at a relationship culminate in his contempt for those who can’t follow his deep philosophical thinking, we see a man in crisis. He has been disillusioned at a young age, as seen in a nicely orchestrated dinner scene with his family. All his needs for equality are very close to heart. He won’t teach from a Civil Rights syllabus because that would be short-changing the subject. Dunne wants to bring about change in his students, he wants to show the competing pressures of opposites and make a difference in their lives, as he has not been able to do in his own. The human soul is a complicated force of nature in this way. It seems to never have a problem giving up on itself, as we are all sinners striving for good. However, to give up on those around us that we love cannot be done no matter how much we try. Tension can rise to a boil, but when you see those around you in peril you do your best to wake up and do what you can to help them strive for the better. One never knows the outcome; at any moment everything can once again fall apart. We do know that by trying there is always hope.