Great Acting Covers a Multitude of Sins

Ryan Fleck's new indie feature Half Nelson works almost in spite of itself. It works because it has a basic earnestness and care for its characters that is a refreshing change from the smugness that disfigures so many original screenplays these days. But more than that, it works because the film is superbly -- no, brilliantly -- acted.

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a teacher and girls' basketball coach at a NYC ghetto school who tries to instill in his students an inquisitiveness and creativeness that goes well beyond the curriculum he is supposed to be teaching. He is also a casual crack smoker when he is not in front of his class. One of his favorite players and students is Drey (Shareeka Epps), who is as concerned about him as he is her, particularly when she finds him stoned in the school buildling after hours. Her own family situation is entangled in the drug world as well; her older brother is in prison and his best friend, Frank (Anthony Mackie), is a dealer who is more than willing to use her as a courier should the opportunity present itself. As the film unspools, Dan's life slowly spirals out of control with what would seem to be an inevitable tragic ending in store.

For both better and worse, Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden, love their characters. I've already mentioned the better; they refuse to vilify Dunne's supervisor or less-motivated colleagues (one of whom gets a particularly lovely performance from Denis O'Hare), and only gently caricature his ex-hippie parents. But their feeling for their characters also causes them to flinch from the internal logic of the film's narrative arc, which can only go one way, to a sad oblivion. Fleck's directorial style is a bit heavy on quasi-documentary handheld camera, but it does give the film an off-the-cuff intensity that is fairly effective.

But what saves the film is the extraordinary work of the three leads, Gosling, young Epps and Mackie. Gosling has already shown himself to be one of the most electifying American actors of his generation, a master of conflicting emotions leading to moments of excruciating self-torment.
Mackie is not an unknown quantity either, a silky smooth Mephistopheles. But the real find of the film is Epps, a high-schooler who Fleck and Boden cast in the short film that was the origin of Half Nelson; to be blunt, the kid is terrific, graced with real screen presence and more than able to hold her own on-screen with Gosling or Mackie. Half Nelson is a flawed, but honorable first feature, saved by its acting. It opens in New York today.