If you’ve ever seen a friend. A loved one. Or a confidant on a downhill slope in his or her life, then “Half Nelson” will surely hit home for you. It hit home for me, and that’s because what occurs here is all too real. Basically, the universal message, the entire message of “Half Nelson” is that our heroes are in fact human, and eventually the people we look up to, people we think are invincible, are in actuality human with flaws, vices, and even addictions, and we’ll discover that eventually, and we may never be able to understand it. But our heroes will in effect be just human, that can not escape their trappings regardless of what you do for them. For Mr. Dunn, his fate is inevitable, and it’s only a matter of time before he faces that.
And his student Dry is willing to fight to save him, even though it’s apparent to the both of them that he can’t keep it up for long. “Half Nelson” is not a PSA, it’s not a morality tale, and it’s not an inspirational piece of Americana where a white teacher changes the lives of poor minority students like “Dangerous Minds.”It’s just a focus on reality, a focus on a man who cannot and doesn’t know how to stop his addiction, and the tale of his student Drey headed for a life in crime, but determined to keep her hero safe in exchange for her own innocence. “Half Nelson” is a wonderful piece of filmmaking, and it’s a pure masterpiece of raw acting, and raw filmmaking. Ryan Gosling’s performance is utterly incredible, and the normal Gosling people are used to seeing does not appear here. Gosling dives into his role as Mr. Dunn, and his clean cut looks are taken away for a slimmer, raggedy, sickly demeanor that he pulls off with very much success.
Mr. Dunn is a basket case from beginning to end, wiping sweat from his face incessantly, and barely able to stay awake. He comes to school high and with a hang over, and nine times out of ten can barely keep up with his duties. Every so often he relapses and seems like a normal guy who happens to be a wonderful teacher who bonds with his students, and annoys his superiors due to his radical but very effective teaching methods. Gosling is utterly fantastic here, and he really pours himself into this character. Gosling’s addictive personality harkens back to Ray Miland in “The Lost Weekend,” where he wants to break out from his addiction, but just doesn’t have the power to. He’s ruled by it, in spite of his best efforts to move past it, and the downhill slide is engrossing.
Shareeka Epps is great as the conflicted and confused Drey who holds a deep respect and fondness for Dunn, but doesn’t know if he’s worth saving because of his addiction. And when she discovers he is a druggie, she has to decide how to go about it. Both of them are ignoring the elephant in the room, and the possible repercussions for confronting it could be disastrous, but Drey is willing to take a chance if it means saving the only person in her life she can rely on. “Half Nelson” is a fantastic merging of talents into a pure piece of art, and I loved it. The way to best sum up “Half Nelson” is describing it as a modern “The Lost Weekend,” except set in a more relevant social climate. “Half Nelson” is a masterpiece, and I simply loved it for its honesty, the immense talent behind it, and because of the fact that it doesn’t try to change the world.