Half Nelson (2006)

(On Cable TV, September 2017) Had I seen Half Nelson back in 2006, I may have snapped out of my unfortunate “Ryan Gosling has a punchable face” phase (largely driven by Murder by Numbers) well before 2007’s Fracture. While I’m no big fan of Half Nelson’s gritty naturalistic drama, Gosling is quite good as a competent history teacher by day who turns into a crackhead by night. Half Nelson does grapple with a number of issues about class, race and power relationships, but its biggest asset is Gosling’s ability to be charming or pathetic at will. Shareeka Epps is also quite good as a student who discovers her teacher’s biggest failings, while Anthony Mackie has an early turn as a neighborhood drug dealer. Half Nelson is as far removed from glossy entertainment as you can imagine, and while this obviously has some appeal, it can make the viewing experience draining, especially as it drags on and there is only the barest hint of a redemption at the end, following a demoralizing rock bottom. The film does get better once you compare it to the heroic-teacher subgenre in which white people teach lessons to black students from the ghetto—the clichés are completely upended here, and the film delights in refusing a redemptive arc. Most notably, a subplot with Monique Gabriela Curnen is positively infuriating in refusing an upbeat closure. If Half Nelson doesn’t feel like your cup of tea, that’s OK—it’s not meant for everyone, but it certainly remains a must-see for anyone digging into Gosling’s filmography.

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