By Brian Abrams
In The Believer, Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of a self-loathing, Jewish neo-Nazi who plots to bomb his community synagogue enchanted audiences at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Five years later, and the lanky Canadian did it again.
In January, at Robert Redford’s gathering, Gosling generated more buzz, this time as the star of Half Nelson, another gritty indie and one in which the 26-year-old plays Dan Dunne, a Brooklynite who teaches eighth-grade social studies and coaches the girls’ basketball team. He’s white, they’re black, and he’s full of frustration, anger, fear, desperation -- and a lot of crack cocaine.
The movie leaves little to grab onto. Not much happens, and pretty much every scene is downcast, but the leading man’s outstanding performance propels the thin narrative forward. Gosling delivers a powerful character study of a lost Gen-Y liberal.
Unlike The Believer’s lean, mean skinhead, Half Nelson’s Dunne is lethargic and scruffy. On one hand, he honestly cares about his students. He consistently puts his harmful habit aside to connect with them. He cracks sweet smiles and gives animated, passionate lectures on modern American history, in most cases speaking in a conversational, lingo-laced way that the kids can understand.
When he’s not in class, however, and occasionally in places where 13-year-olds don’t dare tread, he’s miserable. He spends his lunch hours alone at his desk. In the teacher’s lounge, he lies on the ratty couch and keeps to himself, mainly to avoid talking to any of his peers. At night, “Teach” freebases coke and makes meaningless chatter with shallow party girls in a dark nightclub. His sweet smile is gone, replaced by a look of quiet despair.
Don’t misinterpret, though: Half Nelson isn’t just another film about drug addiction and clinical depression. We’re not sure why Dunne is the way he is, but co-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden leave bits of evidence throughout. A couple of the main reasons: His girlfriend left him and broke his heart, and he’s maddened and saddened by the failings of blue-state America. The clues create a sense of drama that makes averting your eyes from the screen hard, even though there’s no plot per se.
Things get moving a little once the friendship between Dunne and his favorite student, Drey (Shareeka Epps), becomes the film’s focal point. Drey’s blood brother is in prison, and her surrogate big brother is Frank, a crack dealer (Anthony Mackie).
Although their screen time is limited, Epps and Mackie also give exceptional performances, both almost as strong as Gosling’s. But this film, unfortunately, is too devoted to plumbing the cruel depths of Dunne’s depression, and it doesn’t blink often. Otherwise insignificant moments, such as when he crouches in his kitchen to feed his cat or leans out a window to smoke, hinder Half Nelson from the greatness it could have been.
You could say that Gosling is taking the hard road to success. For as affecting as The Believer is, it wasn’t even screened in theaters. Chances are, Half Nelson will also go under the radar. Hopefully, this fine young actor will one day become more than just another Sundance kid.