In the new movie Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a history teacher and girls’ basketball coach at a Brooklyn junior-high school. He’s also a crackhead who spends his evenings trolling bars and drinking himself into a mumbling stupor.
Dan is so far gone that he can’t even wait to toke up at home. He uses the bathroom at school one day after a game. In fact, he does it right in the girls’ bathroom (apparently, the boys’ room was too far away). That’s how he gets discovered by Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of his students and players. She takes in the scene and passes on. She has eyes wiser than her 13 years; her older brother is in jail on drug charges, and the brother’s associate Frank (Anthony Mackie) takes a sort of avuncular interest in Drey and her family, perhaps out of guilt that Drey’s brother is doing time for him.
Stumbling out of the girls’ bathroom, Dan finds Drey stranded without a ride home, apparently forgotten by her deadbeat dad. So he gives her a ride home, and from that a sort of hesitant, dilatory friendship develops. It never seems to occur to the clueless Dan that it might be inappropriate to spend so much time alone with a 13-year-old girl; even so, some vestigial trace of self-preservation prompts him to keep his meetings with Drey discreetly off the school radar.
In the script by Anna Boden and director Ryan Fleck (expanded from their 2004 short Gowanus, Brooklyn, which won awards on the indie-festival circuit), we never learn where Dan’s drug haze started or why rehab never worked for him. But there are halfhearted hints: His parents (Deborah Rush, Jay O. Sanders) are aging hippies who apparently can’t get through a family dinner without killing off several bottles of wine.
Whether or not the weakness for drugs came from them, Dan certainly carries their ’60s attitudes with him into the classroom; his muttered, rambling lectures go on and on about “opposites” and the yin and yang of history (which he calls “ying-yang”), and he considers Mario Savio of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement worth more class time than John F. Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson.
Dan carries more subtly insidious attitudes of the ’60s bourgeois counterculture, too. He takes it on himself to confront the drug dealer Frank and tell him that his (Frank’s) influence on Drey is unhealthy for her; it’s the well-meaning white liberal who knows what’s best for his fellow citizens of color. But Frank only sells the stuff—he doesn’t use it—and his eyes are clearer than Dan’s. When Drey says of Dan, “He’s my friend,” Frank is quick to set her straight. “Hey, he’s a base-head,” he says. “They don’t have friends.”
Dan certainly seems to go out of his way to avoid friendships and to sabotage those that threaten to develop. A fellow teacher, sensing trouble, says, “Hey, we’re here for you, man,” only to be waved off with a yeah-whatever-screw-you. Another teacher (Monique Gabriela Curnen) has dinner and sex with him, but he blows her off the next morning and then shows up at her door one midnight and tries to force himself on her, getting only the fat lip he so richly deserves.
The title Half Nelson is never really explained, unless it’s an elliptical way of saying “half-assed.” In any case, the movie is a good character study (portrait of the young man as a worthless bum), but Fleck and Boden fall into the trap of their central character: Their film is as sluggish and stagnant as Dan Dunne’s life. It makes all its points in the opening minutes (like the 19-minute short that preceded it, perhaps) and then repeats them over and over until it simply stops without really ending. Anna Boden is credited as editor as well as co-writer, but Half Nelson wasn’t edited; it was assembled.
Still, there are fine, subtle performances by the three lead players. Gosling eschews an actor’s vanity in playing a near-total failure—a lousy teacher and a crummy basketball coach, so brain-dead that he can’t even tell a knock-knock joke without blowing it. Mackie’s Frank is sharp, slick and smart, more than a match for this dullard who thinks he knows what’s best for Drey. And best of all is Epps’ Drey; this cool, clever girl, we know, will be able to deal with any obstacle—even having a teacher like Dan Dunne.