Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) teaches in a poor school where his unusual approach engages the pupils. But out of school, frustration fuels his drug habit. One night troubled student Drey (Shareeka Epps) chances upon him while he's high, and a bond is forged.
Who’d have thought, watching TV spin-off series Young Hercules, that its clean, sweet teenaged star, Ryan Gosling, would in less than a decade be among the younger actors ever nominated for an Oscar? All wonderment is dispelled by the gifted Canadian’s marvellous performance in a role that combines the award-inviting double threat of an inspirational teacher and a self-destructive crack cocaine addict. If he’d been blind or one-legged as well, Forest Whitaker would have been nervous.
A “half nelson” is a wrestling hold that is almost impossible to escape. Happily all wrestling in the film is strictly metaphorical. Dedicated junior high school teacher Dan does coach the kids’ basketball team — between spats with the principal about his approach and an ill-judged spot of freebasing crack in the toilet — but it’s his intellect and political right-on-ness which doom him to disappointment in life as well as within the educational system. So that’s the immediately apparent problem that has him in a stranglehold. Neatly fleshed-out scenes with family and girlfriends tell us enough about his background, his sex life and his frustrated youthful aspirations to give us insight into and sympathy with his struggles.
He needs a chance for redemption, alright, and he’s not the only one. Pubescent Drey (the natural and engaging Shareeka Epps) is the lonely kid of a single working mother. The older brother she adores is in prison, and the glib, handsome drug dealer (Anthony Mackie) who got him there is intent on recruiting Drey into his sordid business. When the paths of these three people intersect, an interesting dynamic emerges. There is, clearly, a battle for one or another’s soul. But who is saving who is not so clear in a genuinely affecting set of events and an unusual, significant friendship.
The fledgling filmmaking partnership of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who between them write, produce, direct and edit, has conceived and executed a real winner. They’ve managed to sidestep the clichés of the white-teacher-who-spreads-knowledge-in-an-inner-city-school sub-genre and the drearier aspects of the drug dependency drama, creating an original work that is moving, not without humour, fly-on-the-wall realistic and uplifting.
Just wonderful with its offbeat but wholly credible storyline, down-to-earth style and exceptionally fine performances.