Revisiting Gems: #1 Half Nelson (2006)

In this new series I will be reviewing great movies from the past, and, particularly for the older classics, commenting on how they hold up today.

First up is Half Nelson, an intriguing drama featuring Ryan Gosling as a teacher addicted to drugs. He works with inner city children and for the most part they seem to have a good relationship. He seems like the teacher you always wanted when you were at school. He’s fun and engaging, but he’s not necessarily following the curriculum. His addiction is out of hand though and when one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), discovers him taking drugs in the school after closing, a strange friendship blossoms.

It’s a relatively slow burner but there is such emotion, especially in the two lead performances (Gosling rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for his engrossing work), that it’s impossible to look away from for a second. The bizarre relationship between the teacher and his student, and the slowly moving parts around them (for example Anthony Mackie’s rather creepy Frank), make for a truly fascinating watch. You are roped in early and until the finale¬†you are without a clue where the film is going to go. There are so many paths that could be taken, some intriguing and others disturbing, yet you feel that no matter what happens you have to watch to see how any of this could possibly be resolved. Ryan Fleck deserves a lot of the credit here, for crafting such a brilliantly original, at times heart wrenching tale. His direction is as uncomfortable as the situation on screen. We suffer many focused close ups, making us feel as trapped as Gosling’s Dan Dunne is in his current life. He’s stuck in a constantly painful routine, and we are right there for every step of it. I believe the title Half Nelson (a difficult move in wrestling to escape from) epitomises this feeling of being trapped.

This is perhaps Gosling’s greatest performance. It’s got none of the bravado of some of his other work; its a very nuanced turn, and there is so much to be found in just the slightest movement of the eyes, or the way he holds himself. The fact he can portray so much through just body language, and say so much without uttering a word is no doubt one of the reasons why Winding Refn chose him to play the protagonist in Drive. It’s the sign of a good actor. We feel his terror even though he never discusses it. We know he’s lost; we know what he’s thinking. It’s incredible to watch, and we are more than happy to be absorbed into it. In fact, perhaps the best moment in the entire film is when he simply nods.

This is not to say Gosling isn’t given many lines though. There’s just so much to be found in what is not being said. The script itself is a revelation. I have already praised Fleck for his direction but he and Anna Boden did a great job making the story completely fresh and very down to earth. The premise seems wacky in many ways, but the script is tight and the performances spot on. Epps, for instance, proves why she is one to watch for the future.

It’s definitely a film that deserves a silence afterwards to ponder meanings and characters and well the whole damn movie! So if you’ve seen it, rewatch it, there’s something new to be found every time: a line, a moment, a silence, may be even just a nod. If you’ve not seen it, it is highly recommended you do so.