Half Nelson

(2006) *** 1/2 R
104 min. ThinkFilm. Director: Ryan Fleck. Cast: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Curnen, Karen Chilton.

The great acting teacher Uta Hagen wrote that one of the greatest goals of an actor is spontaneity. A cat on stage, she noted, was inevitably the most interesting actor—because it behaved as it pleased, unrehearsed. A cat could do anything at any time. With their narrative feature debut, writer-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden cut a slice of life that's rich with spontaneity, and the feline duo of Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps create together what may be the year's most fascinating screen odd couple.

Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a junior-high history teacher and basketball coach in Brooklyn. Resolutely pursuing his own discussion-based muse, Dan dodges the core curriculum to teach history his way. "History is change," explains Dan, encouraging kids to see the patterns of change as emergent from a series of dialectical showdowns. By day, Dunne dances as fast as he can to keep his students' attention (invariably losing at least one to a nap); by night, he loses himself in a haze of cocaine and ponders if he's making a difference. Would it be enough to change one child, and is he even capable of doing so?

Ironically, Dan's best opportunity comes not in a classroom—where his hangovers and neuroses make him unreliable—but in the locker room. There, thirteen-year-old Drey (Epps) finds her teacher slumped around the toilet with a crack pipe between his fingers. This unexpected entanglement batters the teacher-student boundary, but allows a wary understanding to develop into a caring if volatile friendship. Drey chooses not to abuse her knowledge, but she's rightly concerned about the self-destructive path of her most appealingly loose teacher. As Dan begins to take in the bigger picture of Drey's life, he too cannot help but feel a frustrated protective instinct.

If Dan is hanging precariously from a precipice, Drey is approaching her own. Left too often alone by her single mother—a caring but harried EMT—the lollipop-sucking Drey entertains persistent offers of friendship from Frank (Anthony Mackie of She Hate Me), the neighborhood drug dealer responsible for landing her older brother in prison. She's clearly in search of a male influence, and Dan's in no position to throw stones at Frank, a friendly and reasonable man who makes his living off addicts like Dan. Nevertheless, neither Dan nor Drey seems willing to accept that a career in drug-dealing is the girl's best option.

Dan's deep-seated liberal disillusionment is the cracked mirror of his parents' resignment. Former radical protestors, they've traded "up" to cynical middle-class alcoholism. In a politically numb America, Dan's ambivalence thoroughly infects his life. In career (both as teacher and indecisive writer), crash-and-burn relationships with women, and the drug habit that keeps him barely functioning (he claims to have tried and failed at rehab), Dan is a man adrift, desperately wanting change but unable to see the forest for the trees and unwilling to pick up an axe.

Fleck and Boden excel at patiently portraying private thoughts and behaviors; the fluid camerawork and Boden's editing complement a script that vehemently refuses cliché. Habitually wiping his cottonmouth, Gosling simmers on low, his despair cut with off-kilter, self-deprecating humor. Epps provides a subtle, close-to-the-vest counterpoint to the addict's fuck-it attitudes. Their emotionally crushing penultimate encounter leads to a crossroads conclusion, one enticing enough to have audiences demanding a sequel to follow the characters wherever they're headed next.

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