More nuanced than your average Sundance character study, Ryan Fleck’s carefully observed Half Nelson still doesn’t overcome its origins as a padded-out expansion of the filmmaker’s 2002 short Gowanus, Brooklyn. Dan (Ryan Gosling) is an eighth-grade social studies teacher and girls basketball coach with historical “oppositions” and “turning points” on his mind, though his life’s real conflict revolves around his nagging habit of sitting at home in his underwear smoking crack and watching Charles in Charge. When he’s caught getting high in a locker room toilet stall by one of his 13-year-old students, Drey (Shareeka Epps, a holdover from Gowanus), a tenuous friendship is born in which the latch-key kid maintains Dan’s secret and the educator, in turn, attempts to function as the teen’s surrogate father figure without sacrificing the addiction that’s jeopardizing his relationship with a fellow teacher (Monique Gabriela Curnen) as well as his job.
Dan’s hypocritical efforts to be a better role model for the impressionable young girl than charismatic dope pusher Frank (Anthony Mackie)—whose dealings with Drey’s brother led to the latter’s incarceration—form the dramatic crux of the film, which proceeds with an unobtrusive modesty that somewhat palliates its eventual corniness. Such reserve also extends to Fleck’s direction, with his use of slightly jittery cinematography and Broken Social Scene’s tremulous guitar score amplifying his protagonists’ emotional and socio-economic instability. And in a forceful natural turn, Gosling personifies the bleary-eyed Dan as a man trapped in a self-spun cocoon of cowardly denial, his descent into narcotization driven by stubbornness and self-loathing and carried out—as seen in a pathetic, silent glance to Drey upon hitting rock bottom—with unconvincing “I can’t change who I am” resignation.
Fleck too easily alleviates this defeatism with an injection of climactic redemption, but it’s not insincere optimism that finally prevents Half Nelson from transcending humdrum feel-bad-and-then-feel-good indie cinema territory but, rather, an inability to draw significant connections between its central narrative and the history lessons delivered by Dan’s students. Speeches about Attica and Brown v. Board of Education (depicted with authentic newsreel clips), as well as the sight of Frank’s noxious blackface figurines, strive to provide both a context for, and commentary on the implications of, Dan and Drey’s racial boundary-crossing relationship. In the director’s overly cautious hands, however, such wannabe polemical undercurrents are ultimately so downplayed as to be largely meaninglessness, rendering the film a lightweight tale of unlikely allies conquering personal and societal demons.