My Favorite Movies – Half Nelson (2006)

15 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Acclaimed actor Ryan Gosling received his first Oscar nomination for playing a middle-school teacher with a crack habit in the great 2006 drama film, Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden’s “Half Nelson.” Gosling had already shown promise as a young rising star, with gripping work in “The Believer,” “The Notebook,” and “Stay.” But it was his performance in “Half Nelson” that became the breakthrough that his career needed.

“Half Nelson” is about good people who adopt bad habits, such as a father figure (played by Anthony Mackie) who is a drug dealer. And Gosling’s character Dan Dunne is the one in question. He’s a history teacher for an inner city middle school and he’s very good at what he does, despite (or rather, because of) not sticking to the assigned syllabus. One of the most subtle touches of Gosling’s performance is that the only thing that truly gets him excited is when he gets to talk of arguments of power and world politics (whether in or out of the classroom), showing that it’s the very thing he has a real passion about. But it’s mostly when he’s outside of school (or even when he’s in the teacher’s lounge) that he’s half-dead, even smoking crack as a vice to get him through the strangeness of life.

He forms a friendship with one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), after she discovers his habit. And he learns more about her (such as how Mackie, the dealer, gets her involved in his business), enough to get an idea of what she needs and what she should avoid. But who is he to judge? Therein lies the interesting question surrounding Gosling’s character—can a basehead be a good role model? Is that even possible?

Gosling has to portray a man who means well, who is good at his job, and who can give good advice…but he also has to portray him as flawed, destructive, irresponsible to himself and potentially others. Who is Dunne in the classroom? He’s a cool, hip teacher whose class most of us would be happy to take. Who is Dunne outside the classroom? He’s practically a zombie. We see how he lives in his small apartment, how he wakes up in the morning on a hardwood floor, and how he drags himself to work each day.

This is why Gosling’s performance is so powerful and why it deserved many accolades—he’s able to pull it off with the right amount of body language, carefully written dialogue (and a bit of improvisation as well), and subtlety to get us to understand what goes on in this person’s head and why we should care.

Gosling IS this movie—if he didn’t convince us that he was capable of so many layers to put on this performance, it would all fall apart. Dan Dunne is not a bad person—he just has a bad habit. We know a lot of people like that, and “Half Nelson” reminds us of it.

Ryan Gosling would go on to stardom and subsequent impressive performances (“Drive,” “The Nice Guys,” and “La La Land,” just to name a few). But we shouldn’t forget that it was “Half Nelson” that showed the world that he deserved the attention to begin with.

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