The opening scene of Ryan Fleck's genre-busting character study Half Nelson is quite ugly, featuring a strung-out wreck of a man trying to pull it together and leave his slightly squalid Brooklyn flat to go...somewhere. Methadone clinic?Rehab?Opium den? Nope. Turns out Dan Dunne, as played by Ryan Gosling (last seen in Stay), is headed to work. He's a junior-high history teacher as well as the girls' basketball coach, and once in front of his predominantly African-American students Dunne seems like a different man, obviously fortified by the positive energy radiating from the kids.
But don't assume you're in for yet another movie in which an idealistic white guy uses quirky methods to inspire a classroom full of young black scholars. You may think you know how it's going to play out --- barriers shattered, trust gained, minds opened --- and you wouldn't be entirely wrong, but Half Nelson takes a sharp left when Dunne busts out the crack pipe at school and is, in turn, discovered huddling in the locker room by Drey (newcomer Shareeka Epps), a grim 13-year-old girl contending with some demons of her own.
Half Nelson continues to buck expectations as Dunne and Drey tentatively bond over their shared secret as well as their individual experiences with the drug trade, though they don't really discuss either topic. Drey's beloved older brother is in jail, having taken the fall for menacingly pleasant local dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie from Million Dollar Baby, making a pusher likeable), and Frank's guilt manifests itself as he too tries to adopt the role of father figure to Drey. His status as protector doesn't prevent Frank from using Drey to distribute his product, however, and in one particularly heartbreaking scene a delivery to a hotel room puts to rest any naïve notions Drey may have continued to harbor about both of her self-appointed mentors.
Entertainment Weekly recently called Gosling the best actor of his generation, and it's difficult to take issue with this admittedly bold statement. After serving notice of his astonishing talent as a Jewish neo-Nazi in 2001's The Believer, he's gone on to class up Hollywood throwaways like Murder By Numbers and make formulaic fluff like The Notebook compulsively watchable while still tending to his indie roots (The United States of Leland). Half Nelson showcases Gosling's finest performance yet as a crack addict who makes no apologies for his addiction yet realizes he's hit rock bottom. Other actors might have taken a character like Dunne way over the top, but Gosling wisely underplays the role, allowing sunglasses, bandages, and other people's reactions to Dunne's actions to tell the sad story.
Even more subtle than Gosling's performance is that of Epps. Four years older than her character, she played the role of Drey in Gowanus, Brooklyn, the short film by Fleck and co-writer Anna Bowden that gave rise to Half Nelson. Epps' Drey is a cautious kid, observing without judging, her infectious smiles hard-won and too infrequent. She befriends both Frank and Dunne because she needs someone to trust and desperately wants to see the good in these deeply flawed men. The final shot of the film contains no convenient resolution or easy answers, only awkward humor, beautiful truth and the satisfying feeling that life will continue --- for better or for worse --- even if we're not watching.
"I was doing it right, but I wasn't doing right." Green Beret Donald Duncan was just one of the troops in Vietnam whose conscience was at increasing odds with his actions, and in the absorbing documentary Sir! No Sir!, David Zeiger takes a look at the escalating anti-war movement among active military during the war in Southeast Asia that led to court martials and massive desertion (more than 500,000 by the end of the war) following the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Actor TroyGarity --- he'll be in the next year's Danny Boyle movie Sunshine --- narrates Sir! No Sir!, an apt choice since Garity's parents are infamous war protestors Tom Hayden and "Hanoi Jane" Fonda, both of whom appear in the film, with Fonda recalling the anti-war revue she and Donald Sutherland performed for receptive uniformed soldiers. Other interviewees include Susan Schnall, a Navy nurse who was jailed for dropping anti-war leaflets onto the Presidio army base, and Dr. Howard Levy, also incarcerated for refusing to train Special Forces troops. One former GI says, "I knew what was happening in country was not what was being told to the United States," further confirmation that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Half Nelson (R), directed by Ryan Fleck, opens Friday, September 15, at Little Theatres. | Sir! No Sir!(NR), directed by David Zeiger, shows at 8 p.m. Friday, September 8, at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre.