Perhaps the curiosity towards Half Nelson, is how Ryan Gosling got nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor, from seemingly out of nowhere. Probably better remembered for his short lived television series Young Hercules, and recently in the straight to DVD movie Stay, he puts up a rather stoned performance (ok, so his character is a junkie) that seemed to want to tug your heartstrings in his weary, isolated outlook of life, yet leaving you feeling rather nonchalant given his substance abuse.
To his students, Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is the teacher full of unorthodox ideas, challenging authority and doing things his way. His subject expertise is history, and instead of going the rote way in regurgitating curriculum, he opts for the understanding of rationale behind events, making his classes interactive and interesting. Being a teacher, whether you like it or not, you're a role model, and therefore, a moral compass to your impressionable charges. I have a friend whose other friends are teachers, and he sometimes account their behaviour outside of class, which we are of the opinion that if any parent were to know of their shenanigans, they would immediate withdraw their children from classes.
Dan is such an example - a substance abuser, developing a crutch toward vices to sooth his pain of the real world, where he increasingly feels disconnected from. Chancing upon his activity one day in a toilet, is his student Drey (Shareeka Epps), who decides to keep mum about it. And thus, the two of them start to form this unconventional, radical bond between themselves, a friendship which raises eyebrows from certain quarters as well. With this bond, Dan experiences certain moral responsibility developed, and takes it upon himself to not let Drey succumb to any negative influences. On the other hand, Drey looks up to Dan like a surrogate big brother, given that she's atypical of a latch key child.
The movie adopted rather different approaches, and diverts from the cliche tried and tested storylines like how dangerous substance abuse is, and basically sheds off a lot of fat by keeping its focus on the two leads. The story coasts along rather slowly, and at times, rather aimlessly. I thought the connection with the theme of discrimination and the dwelling on dialectics and the winds of change, rather weak, though some have lauded it, and I don't see what's the big deal about it.
What was awesome though, was one scene where you could feel the pain the characters go through, as one felt helpless and rather shameful to have been exposed in the manner prescribed, and the other, surprised yet unable to do anything else about it, unable to change, and the feeling of guilt akin to delivering poison for a friend's consumption, with another subtle level of letting a mentor down.
Peppered with intentionally bad jokes and a reasonable soundtrack, Half Nelson is reasonably engaging, but definitely not great. Don't hold your breaths for Gosling winning the Oscar as well, Forest Whitaker is probably on the final home stretch for The Last King of Scotland.