Living, Teaching, and Taking Drugs in Brooklyn
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The other New York movie opening this week, the indie drama “Half Nelson,” packs its own wallop with the year’s best performance so far. Rising actor Ryan Gosling again showcases his talent for inhabiting characters with his incarnation of Dan, a 20-something Brooklyn schoolteacher, idealist, and drug addict. Instead of a clichéd portrait of torment, we see a young guy buoyed by dreams but slowly, slowly sinking.
“Half Nelson” had its premiere at Sundance this past January, but in a sadly typical commentary on the festival, it left without prizes. Fortunately, New York filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (his co-screenwriter) found a distributor for their feature, which grew out of their equally impressive 19-minute short, “Gowanus.” Both films are set in the short’s eponymous Brooklyn neighborhood, probably a future target for gentrification but today the site of housing projects and abandoned industry.
The fulcrum of “Half Nelson” is the fraught rapport between Dan and one of his middle-school students, Drey (Shareeka Epps). But the movie isn’t some quixotic inner-city schoolhouse schlock, or even chiefly about their fragile bond. The real lived-in drama occurs outside the classroom and inside Dan. Inevitably, one night after a girls’ basketball game, Drey stumbles upon her teacher freebasing in an empty bathroom. Through heavy-lidded haze, desperate, he asks her to keep him company for just a moment.
It’s a heartbreaking turn of events for Dan (and a superbly played scene, with the young Ms. Epps’s control as impressive as Mr. Gosling’s). Only a few days earlier, the hipsterish teacher, whose American history lessons are about dialectics and Pinochet, confides to a bar pick-up the importance of changing even just one person. Drey, mature but still a child, seems a suitable candidate; a brother is in jail for a drug-related crime, and her single mother is overworked.
In class, at least, Dan is a force to be reckoned with, and here and elsewhere Mr. Gosling is an easy, engrossing presence. Lanky, stubbly, and loose-limbed, his Dan is bright, a little self-satisfied, but seductively cool, charismatic, and well-intentioned enough to get away with it. (It’s with a start that one realizes that the same actor’s talent for naturalism fueled his role as the neo-Nazi Jewish protagonist of 2001’s “The Believer.”)
Drey keeps her mentor’s secret, but slowly it starts to catch up with him. Aside from increasingly off-topic class lectures, Dan falls victim to what turn out to be perilously few degrees of separation: He soon meets Frank (Anthony Mackie), the dealer for whom Drey’s brother took the rap, and he can’t abide the suave fellow’s self-appointed caretaker role for his student. He feels a protective urge, but an awareness of his hypocrisy also comes out in a blunt outburst to Frank about how to save Drey from her environment: “I don’t know! I don’t know.”
Both part of the problem and battling his problems, Dan would do well to heed one of the 1960s protest speeches he plays for his students about resisting “the machine” of a complacent society. Mr. Fleck has said that he had in mind the ineffectual tendencies of the Left today, and the mood of hobbled idealism is reflected in our view of a young man wanting to do more than he practically knows how to. More generally, it’s also true to the ambitions of a milieu of striving young New Yorkers (which, with next month’s release of Andrew Bujalski’s “Mutual Appreciation,” looks to become its own subgenre).
Mr. Fleck’s concerns lead him to a less than convincing optimism in the movie’s conclusion, but Mr. Gosling’s performance remains uncompromised. I would even argue that the showiness that some have singled out for criticism is part and parcel of the character’s regard for his own charm. It’s unmistakable in a late scene when Dan goes home to visit his ex-hippie parents (otherwise a bit of an oversell by Mr. Fleck). His too-cool air toward his brother’s new girlfriend as he sits smoking in the wine cellar, back facing her, is his regular charisma refashioned — not saving the world, just impressing a girl.
“Half Nelson” is not a perfect film, nor is Mr. Gosling’s character the most complex on film. But there’s a lot to be said for the feeling that a real-life human being is acting and reacting with genuine unpredictably on the screen in front of you.