Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.
Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson played like a calmer, quarter-sized 2006 predecessor to TV’s Breaking Bad — a drama using drug addiction and drug trade as gateways into a larger, messier tale of crumbling composure, confidence and values.
Hardly the stuff of inspirational teacher drama, but the unruly, somewhat unresolved Half Nelson can’t be so easily simplified into that genre.
Ryan Gosling (in an Oscar-nominated turn) is Dan Dunne, a lanky inner-city teacher and basketball coach who’s against the establishment while a part of it — seeing history as a triumph of dialectics, opposing forces that enact change over time. But Dan’s recreational drug use has ballooned into an addiction to crack, a drug that student Drey (Shareeka Epps) catches him smoking.
That uneasy clash of authority and empathy sustains Half Nelson through its characters’ crises of conscience, which, like Bad, refuse an easy moral escape hatch.
Dan argues one thing doesn’t make a man — bolstered by his contradictory impulses to do good for others and willfully self-destruct. And although dealer Frank’s (Anthony Mackie) drug trade imprisoned her brother, Drey shares a gentle relationship with him that might be a lure or maybe just a mix of loyalty and guilt.
Gosling and Epps elegantly tiptoe around Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden’s elephant in the room: Dan’s most compelling instruction to not let Drey enter the trade is his own destruction.
Fleck and Boden turn that point of panic into something resembling penance — a poignant challenge of both characters’ convictions that realistically has no definite right answer.