Making a friend can change your life in Half Nelson

Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps are remarkable in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s fantastic drama HALF NELSON.

Ryan Gosling had already made quite a name for himself since bursting onto our screens in the early 2000s with a succession of memorable roles in The Believer, Murder by Numbers and The Notebook. But he moved into a different league for me with his superlative and rightly Oscar-nominated performance in the fantastic 2006 drama HALF NELSON.

Ryan Gosling is Dan Dunne in Half Nelson

Ryan Gosling is teacher Dan Dunne

In co-writers / co-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s debut feature, he’s Dan Dunne – a junior high school teacher with a drug habit. Although he’s an inspiring teacher of history in the classroom (albeit not exactly what’s on the curriculum), in his personal life, Dan’s addiction has seen his girlfriend leave him for a cleaner future. Similarly pushed and pulled by the lure of the drugs when he’s not in school, Dan is struggling to keep it together, to say the least.

However, a kind of salvation may be close at hand in a very unlikely place. One of the girls in the basketball team Dan coaches after school, the 13-year-old Drey (magnetically played by Shareeka Epps) by chance discovers Dan’s secret. But rather than tell on him, she begins to help him.

Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson

Shareeka Epps as basketball student Drey with Gosling’s Dan

Drey has troubles of her own and so is a kind of kindred spirit to Dan. Her parents are no longer together and her brother is in prison for selling drugs. She is constantly harassed by the neighbourhood drug dealer Frank (played with his customary vivacity by the excellent Anthony Mackie) to come and work for him and so school offers somewhat of a respite from all this.

Their burgeoning, tentative friendship displays some of the best acting you’ll see anywhere. Epps’ beautiful, serene face, masking the hurt and confusion Drey feels about her life. Gosling’s wayward Dan often hidden by sunglasses to cover up the fact that he doesn’t want to look at himself or life in the eye. These are people who are working to conquer small, everyday issues and it’s all portrayed in a marvellously honest way, with flashes of humour to counteract the despair.

After this film, Gosling really began to choose very singular roles that stretched him – from Lars and the Real Girl to Blue Valentine, from Drive to The Ides of March to name but a few – and I like to think that it all started here with HALF NELSON. As for Epps, her performance in this movie is quite stellar for a young actor and I’m only sorry I haven’t seen her in that many roles since. Together in this film, they really are a remarkable team on screen.

Can Dan and Drey more easily save each other, rather than themselves? This is the nub of Fleck and Boden’s wonderfully understated movie and you’ll be engrossed every step of the journey in HALF NELSON to find out. See it.