Every now and again you come across a performance so good that it elevates the movie it’s in. Ryan Gosling gives one of those performances in Half Nelson, and his acting has successfully tricked a number of critics into thinking that the movie is anything but an After School Special done up in gritty indie style. Gosling’s performance is a great one, but it’s a performance desperately in need of a worthy film.
Gosling plays a middle school teacher in a black Brooklyn neighborhood. He’s a good teacher, filled with passion for education and looking for new ways to get these kids to understand and pay attention. That, of course, brings him into conflict with the school administration, which is always looking for teachers to play it by the curriculum book. If that was all that was up, Half Nelson wouldn’t have fooled America’s critics. No, the twist here is that Gosling is a good teacher… with a crack habit.
There’s your juicy indie bit, and the facet of the character that makes him something more appealing to a Ryan Gosling, who wants to play troubled. All young actors want to play troubled, by the way, and if they’re good looking they want to play ugly and troubled. It’s been around for a while now, but it could be called the Charlize Theron Principle.
But there’s more! The movie isn’t certain that it can just be about a crack head school teacher, so it throws in a tough yet tender young girl who discovers that her teacher smokes rock. It throws her world into some chaos because she has a crush on him and sees him as the opposite of the crack-slinging world she lives in. Can these two unlikeliest of friends help each other find the way to salvation?
Half Nelson is a good example of a movie that could be cut into half and become two good films, one about the crack head teacher and one about the girl making her way through a complicated world as she grows up, but by melding them together you get a sappy story, even when filtered through the dark lens of “indie sensibility.”
It’s too bad – Gosling’s as good in this as you’ve heard, doing the kind of work that doesn’t get recognized at awards time because it’s so true and so honest and so lived in. And the film is legitimately well made – director Ryan Fleck and cinematographer Andrij Parekh bring a specific flavor of Brooklyn that’s rarely seen on the screen. But every problem with the movie comes in the form of the script, co-written by Fleck and Anna Boden, which is just thinly disguised Hallmark nonsense.
I do wish Gosling had a better place to take this character. I know a number of young, idealistic and worn down teachers in the New York City school system, and while none of them are crack heads (yet), a couple drink way too much, and I recognized them onscreen. He brings so much reality to a movie that’s all too willing to piss it away on a contrived ending. And even along the way the movie doesn’t deal with the issues it brings up itself – should a teacher and a 12 year old have this kind of relationship? The girl discovers Gosling smokes crack when she finds him in a stupor in the girl’s bathroom – what would make him get high there? Is there something sinister going on in his head? Even when the film wants to examine his background, in a scene with his dysfunctional and drunk white liberal guilt family, everything comes off as fake, except for Gosling, a center of reality like Bob Hoskins in Toon Town.