Everyone knows a Dan Dunne. He's the guy you knew in college, the one with super-liberal parents who got an education degree mainly because he couldn't figure out what else to major in. He's the guy who moved to New York to "find himself" as a writer and ended up getting swallowed whole by a huge city and an even huger coke habit.
The wonder of Half Nelson is the way that co-writer and director Ryan Fleck maintains our sympathy and interest in a burned-out hipster like Dan (played by Ryan Gosling) without resorting to manipulative melodrama (Dangerous Minds) or flashy, romanticized scenes of drug use (Requiem for a Dream). Fleck doesn't even allow Gosling, as good as he is, to dominate the film: This is a movie anchored as much by an intense, unknown teenage actress, Shareeka Epps, as it is by a Hollywood hotshot.
When the story opens, Dan is teaching middle school in Brooklyn to make a living, most of which goes toward supporting his epic drug habit. He may be wasted and inert, but he's still charismatic in class: When he's not snorting a line just before the bell rings, he can rile up his students telling them about the civil rights movement, or blow up with righteous indignation at a stubborn referee while coaching girls' basketball after school. It's there that he forms a bond with one of his students, Drey (Epps), a lollipop-sucking, 12-year-old tomboy whose face seems permanently frozen into a defiant pout.
Drey has problems of her own: an older brother in jail on a narcotics bust, a deadbeat dad and a caring but overworked mom. Her brother's drug-dealing friend Frank (Anthony Mackie) takes care of Drey out of a sense of obligation, but she recoils from his attention, as well as the spare cash Frank passes along to her mother. She's not so much in need of a father figure as she is a brother figure, and she finds that in Dan; oddly, their relationship only deepens when she catches Dan sucking on a crack pipe after everyone's gone home one night.
It's amazing the way Half Nelson avoids the dramatic traps and easy nihilism that have characterized so many earnest, Sundance Institute-produced features before it. Even as Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden's script edges toward a standoff between the two competing brother figures, they surprise you with Frank's depth of feeling and compassion, or Drey's self-assuredness. Fleck shoots the film in a series of jittery, handheld close-ups; the movie would be claustrophobic if not seen on a big screen, where you can study the subtle shifts in Gosling's heavy-lidded stare, or the way Epps' mouth breaks into a disarming smile at the most unexpected moments. It's a credit to the two of them that Half Nelson can be as uplifting as it is, even as it suggests that change whether for one addict or an entire racial movement is a long, slow, hard-won journey.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 6 and 7, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 8.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.