Even curriculum-clutchers might rather leave a child behind than let her learn from Half Nelson's Mr. Dunne (Ryan Gosling), a Brooklyn junior-high teacher whose off-the-cuff history lessons are based — brace yourself, Bushies — on dialectical theory. History is change, and change, the white teacher tells the kids, most of whom are black, is the result of opposing forces. To illustrate, Mr. Dunne playfully arm-wrestles one of his 13-year-olds — and wins, despite the greater pull of the teacher's own wearying addiction to crack cocaine.
Unawarded at Sundance despite ample acclaim, Half Nelson drags the crowd-pleasing white-teacher-inspires-black-students movie onto the mat and pins the flabby genre in the first round, such is the film's acute understanding not only of its opponent's weaknesses, but its own. “What can I teach them?” Gosling's Dan wonders aloud in the bar after school — as well he might, given that this oft-hungover lefty intellectual, called daily to stand and deliver at the podium, isn't exactly the image of stability. Neither is he an entirely plausible protagonist, but as Mr. Dunne likes to employ metaphor in the classroom, so first-time feature-maker Ryan Fleck instructs us to see his wannabe-activist basehead as a symbol of American do-gooding gone bad — or at least gone woefully undirected.
Fleck, who co-wrote the script with Anna Boden in between the ambiguously effective anti-war rallies they attended in New York, dares to bend the uplifting melodrama's narrative arc until it points sideways. Who knows whether any one (or two) of us can make a difference these days? Fleck's handheld shakycam — an apt stylistic device if there ever were one — first catches Dan slumped on the floor of his unkempt apartment, the teacher bleary-eyed and wired even before his alarm clock rings at dawn. “Change moves in spirals, not circles,” the strung-out dialectician tells his young students at one point, clearly spiraling down.
The audacity of making an inner-city drama in which the white-male authority figure is the crackhead finds its equal in Gosling's already legendary performance, a high-wire act that's gutsiest for its unconscionable charm. In a single shot some 15 minutes into the movie, Gosling does more than answer the question of whether an actor can humanize a junior-high-teaching drug addict whose student has just caught him cowering in a bathroom stall, reeling from a crack hit: Gosling's wide-eyed look of fear is exaggerated just enough to show us that the addict is acting, too — affecting pathetic vulnerability, plus the faint hint of sheepishness about the act (therein is the charm), by way of copping a plea. No wonder Drey (Shareeka Epps), watching Teach quiver atop a toilet seat (Epps' deadpan reaction is a stunner), decides to take mercy on the man, wiping his brow and proving that opposite forces can also unite — in theory, anyway.
Half Nelson builds to an image of solidarity forged across the lines of race, class, age, and gender, but its path to that cautiously hopeful conclusion remains both tough-minded and regularly surprising. Fleck and Boden, whose documentary Young Rebels examined hip hop in Havana, guard well against the intrusion of anything that feels like Hollywood, shooting in the fly-on-the-wall style of a vérité doc (improv played a part on the set) and sprinkling milky archival footage atop the students' classroom presentations — the classic show-and-tell. (Only an old-school indie would care to refresh our memories of Dan White's “Twinkie defense” and the CIA's support of Augusto Pinochet.) Tutelage takes many forms here: Both Drey's dismantled family and Dan's upscale ex-hippie one appear believably damaged by flawed father figures. One of the movie's tougher lessons is that, for better or worse, we're all connected — child and parent, student and teacher, peddler and user. A gentler message is that stupid jokes, like the trifling knock-knock gag that passes between characters and caps the film, can be a smart way to diffuse tension.
That, Mr. Dunne would say, is a metaphor: The left won't build consensus in divisive times until it can learn to lighten up. Thus the movie gives its school principal not only a valid point about the efficacy of teaching from the standardized “civil rights binder,” but a playful moment where she collects Mr. Dunne's chewing gum in her bare hand, the instructor looking all the more like just another boundary-pushing kid. Authority, in and out of the classroom, is expected to have the answers. Half Nelson — tentative even in its title — is more than honest enough to settle for genuine uncertainty: It asks whether genuine uncertainty — the vague sense that modern life is too complicated to address or even understand — is going to cut it as the world burns. Gosling's second tour-de-force moment in the film comes when the crackhead teacher, midway through telling Drey's drug-dealing surrogate dad (Anthony Mackie) that the girl needs more positive role models, gets a glimpse of his own privileged hypocrisy and starts acting doubtful. “I don't know, I don't know,” the teacher says, throwing his arms aloft. Half Nelson is named for the wrestling move by which an opponent's own strengths are used against him. Mr. Dunne's strength as a teacher is his weakness — as well as a metaphor.