When push comes to shove

Published September 21, 2006

Half Nelson (R) (106 min.) - Dan Dunne teaches Hegelian dialectics to his middle school history class, a heady topic for any age but something this popular teacher and coach lives each moment. Essentially, this is the philosophy that opposing forces pushing against each other determine what happens next. The strong side always wins, but weakness isn't necessarily permanent. An arm wrestler can lift weights, a downtrodden society can rebel. And perhaps the death grip that crack cocaine has on Dan can be loosened if his resolve toughens.

Dan's life is filled with push and pull. He'll binge all night and show up for work, disheveled but dedicated. Dan can be charismatic one moment and churlish the next. Everything about him is contradictory, inwardly opposing forces swapping dominance over what happens next.

Dan realizes what he should do, but addiction prevents him from doing it. He is easily the most complicated screen character so far this year, in a movie that is one of the best.

Ryan Gosling (The Notebook) plays Dan, and a more riveting performance without showy mechanics is unimaginable. Forget those cinematic cliches about screaming withdrawals and manic tantrums. What impresses most about Gosling's quietly frightening portrayal is how close he keeps Dan to normality, whatever mood he's in. Each evenly tempered scene suggests how close the character is to cleaning up, and increases our disappointment when he doesn't.

What may save Dan is an unexpected opposing force. After coaching a basketball game, Dan sneaks into the girls' locker room to smoke a crack pipe. He's discovered nearly unconscious by Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of his players. She recognizes his situation; her older brother has been jailed for selling drugs, and the supplier, Frank (Anthony Mackie), whom he didn't turn in, is grooming Drey to join his business.

Teacher and student become friends when Dan realizes Drey won't snitch. Neither knows everything that is happening in the other's life, and neither is inclined to pry. However, we know everything, laid out with crisp efficiency by filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. Their screenplay is an expanding loop of polar behaviors and conversations with meanings hidden between the lines. Emotions we expect to explode remain muffled because Dan and Drey understand they can't afford to chase each other away. Opposing forces don't just repel; they can also bond.

Much of what happens to Dan and Drey in Half Nelson is presented in such understated fashion that the effects - good and bad - aren't perceptible until long into the film's running time. Even shocking turns in Dan's career or Drea's corruption are low-key; they internalize everything but are so superbly defined by Gosling and Epps that we can practically read their thoughts.

Fleck and Boden use standard movie themes - the good teacher, the streetwise kid, drugs, sex, sports - in startling ways, without sensationalism or climbing on soapboxes. They create a sense of simultaneous repulsion and attraction in viewers that is exciting in these post-summer movie doldrums. Half Nelson never denies the darkness of Dan and Drea's conditions, or promises any light. But study the final shot and guess what their next moves would be. Probably toward the kind of uplifting movie this one strongly opposes. A

- STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic