This past weekend PJ and I finally saw Half Nelson, starring Ryan Gosling as an inner-city junior high school teacher with a bit of a drug habit. If I had the time and inclination, I would go back and revise my list of my favorite films of 2006, because this movie is now one of them. Gosling is mesmerizing, and the film is generally excellent.

The film is about Gosling’s character, Dan, and his struggle to make a difference in his students’ lives. As he says at one point, if he can just change one of their lives for the better, his job will be worth it. He soon singles out one particular student, Drey, played by Shareeka Epps. She’s clearly special, and she’s very much at risk: her single mom works long hours as an EMT to make ends meet, her brother is serving time for a drug conviction, and her brother’s former “employer” is trying to get her to start selling in her brother’s place.

One of the major obstacles standing in his way, of course, is his addiction. I like that the film depicts Dan as someone who is out of control, suffers consequences for his actions, and yet still manages to show up most days to teach his classes and coach the junior high girls basketball team. He’s a functioning addict who hangs perilously close to total destruction. In a lesser film, Dan would totter over the edge, but this film has other interests. It’s not a study in how drugs are bad. They are, and the film lets us see this, but the point lies elsewhere.

There are one or two false steps, however. Dan asks one of his colleagues over for dinner and a date. Their relationship — and some of his behavior towards her — seems out of place in this film. Dan’s new friendship with the 13-year-old Drey would certainly raise more eyebrows than it seems to do — only one character points out that their relationship is inappropriate, but that’s because Dan is a user rather than because he might be a sexual predator. I think the film purposely makes us a little uncomfortable with this aspect of their relationship. Dan isn’t a pedophile, but the film doesn’t let him or us off that hook easily.

Ultimately, what I like best about this film is that it avoids a lot of the cliches that it could have fallen into. I also like that explores the contradiction inherent to the fact that Dan wants the best for Drey but isn’t necessarily the best influence on her life while the drug dealer could potentially destroy her life but also wants to look out for her and isn’t just the “bad guy.” It’s a complex film. The soundtrack is also great.

Gosling definitely deserved his Oscar nomination for this role. He’s wonderful in the part. (And totally hot!) Epps also deserved a nomination — much more so than Abigail Breslin did in my opinion (though she was good too — I just hated Little Miss Sunshine). I definitely recommend this movie. It’s not a light romantic comedy or anything close to it, but it’s a mesmerizing study of this character’s strengths and flaws. It’s a really good film.

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