This past weekend PJ and I finally saw Half Nelson, starring Ryan Gosling as an inner-city junior high school teacher with a bit of a drug habit. If I had the time and inclination, I would go back and revise my list of my favorite films of 2006, because this movie is now one of them. Gosling is mesmerizing, and the film is generally excellent.
The film is about Gosling’s character, Dan, and his struggle to make a difference in his students’ lives. As he says at one point, if he can just change one of their lives for the better, his job will be worth it. He soon singles out one particular student, Drey, played by Shareeka Epps. She’s clearly special, and she’s very much at risk: her single mom works long hours as an EMT to make ends meet, her brother is serving time for a drug conviction, and her brother’s former “employer” is trying to get her to start selling in her brother’s place.
One of the major obstacles standing in his way, of course, is his addiction. I like that the film depicts Dan as someone who is out of control, suffers consequences for his actions, and yet still manages to show up most days to teach his classes and coach the junior high girls basketball team. He’s a functioning addict who hangs perilously close to total destruction. In a lesser film, Dan would totter over the edge, but this film has other interests. It’s not a study in how drugs are bad. They are, and the film lets us see this, but the point lies elsewhere.