Half Nelson (2006) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden earned my interest with Mississippi Grind (2015), and I’ve been meaning to get to Half Nelson (2006) for a while now. I’m a big fan of Ryan Gosling and Anthony Mackie, but the subject matter of the film had kept me from diving in. As of this writing, Half Nelson is available to stream on Netflix and is definitely a film worth your valuable streaming time.

Half Nelson is a tough watch that leaves you thinking about it

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a history teacher, a basketball coach, and a drug addict. Drey (Shareeka Epps) finds Dunne incapacitated after a game, and they collectively help get each other home. This shared secret forces them into an odd friendship that puts a strain on Drey’s relationship with Frank (Anthony Mackie), a local dealer who is helping to take care of her and her mother after her brother ended up in jail. The film puts these opposing forces at odds with each other, with Drey in the middle.

Gosling never ceases to impress and gives a very strong, complex performance. He is juggling quite a bit,  managing to make the character of Dunne sympathetic despite the many bad choices he makes. Even while my hope was waning after watching Dunne make a series of bad choices, I continued to hope that he would learn a lesson and make necessary changes.

Mackie’s character is much more level-headed than Dunne, and delivers a believable performance as Frank. Frank is in charge of many different things, and there is never any doubt who is in control when he’s in a scene. He is a patriarch figure to Drey, he is a respected dealer in the community, and he is a symbol representing of all of Dunne’s problems. Dunne is clearly losing control as the film moves on, but seems to have a code that he is clinging to despite his choices putting he and Frank at odds.

Epps has to do a lot here  too, of course, as we have to care about her future. The character must deal with many things that an average teenager shouldn’t, and we have to believe it’ll either break her or push her to be stronger. Epps is up to the task, and definitely delivers a performance on par with her costars. There are several moments that Drey finds herself facing which make it hard to keep your eyes on the screen, as the dread of possible outcomes weighs heavy.

Fleck is given the sole directing credit on this film, but shares the writing credit with Boden. They make a choice to include some of Dunne’s students giving reports dealing with various civil rights stories. This goes with a theme in the film that Dunne makes the centerpiece of his history classes, which is the idea of opposing forces and their impact on change. It is a compelling perspective that is explored in this film, and is often as heartbreaking.

Final thoughts…

Half Nelson was definitely one I wish I’d watched sooner. I’m looking forward to Boden’s upcoming film, Captain Marvel, which will surely be much less devastating. This film was a compelling character study that allowed some talented actors to showcase their skills. Half Nelson earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.

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