Ryan Gosling anchors Half Nelson with a sturdy, utterly credible performance as a crack-addicted Brooklyn schoolteacher struggling to keep his life together. Strung out and depressed, he’s befriended by a student, Shareeka Epps, who’s fighting her own private battle in an environment that offers up drug-dealing as an easy way to exploit your neighbors for easy profits.
The material could easily be campy or tedious, culminating in a half-baked life lesson about saying no to drugs. But Gosling, who manages an easy, big-brotherly chemistry with Epps, keeps it serious and affecting — he plays a gentle soul but a helpless one, in thrall to his own self-destructive behavior. With kind eyes and a big brain on his shoulders but an imperfect heart on his sleeve, he’s the kind of guy you can imagine a 14-year-old girl could actually learn something from.
Filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (he directed, she produced and edited, and they wrote the screenplay together) make good use of Brooklyn locations to give the film an inner-city immediacy that bolsters the naturalistic tone. It’s a tough movie in the best sense of the word — it never underestimates how difficult it can be to do the right thing.
Originally published in the White Plains Times, August 24, 2006.