(Sprightly music, jaunty voiceover) Meet Dan!
(Shot of Ryan Gosling crumpled in a corner, nostrils fizzing with coke-snot) He’s a high-school teacher who inspires the kids...
(Slo-mo sequence of him joshing with schoolboys and girls)
...but plays truant from his life lessons!
(Dan flopped on the sofa, shark-eyed and skeletal)
When classroom cutie Drey discovers his naughty little secret...
(Toilet door opens to reveal Shareeka Epps’ shocked face; cut to Gosling fumbling with his crack-pipe)
...they form a friendship that will change both their lives!
(Freeze on them together, all chewed-up but wistful.)
Ho-hum, then? An inner-city Dead Poets Society... Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer replaced by some mopey Canadian with a pompous little goatee... Is it hometime yet?
Park your cynicism. Half Nelson is the first great film of 2007 and while Gosling’s tranquil, truthful, hyper-subtlety was never going to best Forest Whitaker’s grandstanding in the Oscar bearpit, he’s still delivered a naturalistic and nuanced masterclass in the art of screen acting. Gosling’s ground for expression is made fertile by his director’s smartness. Fleck isn’t interested in clumsily rubbing our noses into social ‘issues’ or Hollywoodising drug-chic. Like Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane, Half Nelson is more close-up character scrutiny, staring down the scarring horrors of addiction and self-destruction, drawing us into the shadows of one man’s meltdown.
Gosling tears into the challenge like a man prepossessed, illuminating Dan’s inner turmoil not with frothing rants or feeble stoner-babble, but with control, slightness, delicacy: barely darting eyes, mini-shrugs, quarter-smirks, jittery flutters of fear and self-loathing. He’s a warm personality being slowly frozen over; a man engaged in a cold war with his own toxic nature. There he is, marooned in his one-bedroom cocoon; sprawled under the TV tray, pretty and vacant, regarding the twittering answerphone and honking alarm clock with blank confusion/amusement.
While Gosling layers in the sighs and slopes and scowls with breathtaking economy, Fleck burrows his watchful but unfussy handheld up close into his clammy pores, tracking every twitch. But he also takes great care to craft a compulsive backdrop. For a (good) start, he ditches the easy option of a hip-hop mix-tape in favour of wistful ambience and trembling electronica, dropping something stronger only when strictly necessary. Likewise, there’s no screaming match with the starchy headmistress, no corny CG flights of drug-fried fantasy. Conversations – and confrontations – are, as in real life, jagged and tongue-tied; never laboured or cinematic or neatly capped with quotable zingers. Fleck’s people act like people, not movie characters.
Gosling may be bagging the backslaps, but Half Nelson is really a tale of two performances. Shareeka Epps plays Drey with precisely the right flavour of prematurely mature, mottled innocence; she’s a melancholy (not petulant) teen cast into latch-key limbo by an absent dad and wage-slave mum. Epps is Gosling’s dramatic mirror, shedding light and soul around Dan’s dark heart, and when the film makes a rare meander into basic plot-shifting, she’s the emotional glue that keeps it gelled.
Doubters might tire of the convenient classroom theorising and the kids’ to-camera historical interludes. And, after endless scenes of Gosling looking caned and pained, you’d be forgiven for craving a little clarity to warm up the restraint. But then you just wouldn’t be looking hard enough, particularly in the scenes where Fleck’s roving lens sponges up the truth of Dan and Drey’s awkward rapport. Check the long, languid silence when Drey asks him, “What’s it like to smoke that stuff?” and he spies his chance to redirect her before she makes his old mistakes and falls in too intimately with a dealer.
Wisely, Fleck only hints at the reasons behind Dan’s decline and sticks to his grand theme: dialectics, or the conflict of opposites (“Two forces, pushing against each other”). Dan teaches – preaches – about all conflicts having a ‘turning point’. Being discovered mid-puff by Drey is the pivot that sets him on a shallow ascension to self-discovery. “Second chances are rare, man,” he tells a student. Dan and Drey’s friendship isn’t cute or kooky; it’s a bond based on a mutual yearning for change. She needs a beacon – however tarnished. He needs something to save before he gives up on the idea of being saved himself.
Sounds like fun, eh? Well... Depends on what you plan to get out of 90-odd minutes in a dark room. If you’re gagging for a short-term sugar-blast, gorge on 300. If you fancy a skip to rom-com reality, try Music And Lyrics. But if you’re up for a little truth and beauty, something challenging and nourishing; the kind of story that steals into your bones and echoes long after the lights come up...