One problem with the Sundance Film Festival is that its humorless selection committee has an incredibly narrow idea of what an American independent film should be about: dysfunctional families and/or substance abuse. But because Sundance is one of very few paths that an independent filmmaker can take to get his work theatrically released, many such filmmakers bend over backwards coming up with noble, gritty, depressing, and dull stories that might appease the selection committee and ensure Sundance acceptance. Half Nelson is a good example of this.
Indie stalwart Ryan Gosling stars as an inspiring inner-city junior high school teacher with an increasingly worsening cocaine problem. Newcomer Shareeka Epps is the quiet young student who befriends him, even as the lure of becoming a drug dealer herself looms on the horizon. The setup sounds like an instant cliche, but Fleck and Boden are dedicated to keeping the drama realistic, low-key and unsentimental.
Unfortunately, as my wife quickly pointed out, because the filmmakers strive for so much even-handedness, it makes for a boring movie. I'm not saying that melodrama would have helped here, but how is one supposed to react to a film which makes it look as though there's no serious, life-threatening risk in either cocaine addiction or a child cozying up to drug dealers?
I will say that Fleck and Boden succeeded at making the film they wanted to make. Gosling, Epps, and the rest of the cast are all very real and fairly appealing. The film is rich with slice-of-life detail, from the books in Gosling's apartment to Epps's fondness for Charms Blow-Pops. And it's nice to see a movie about drug addiction and inner city life where nobody gets shot or overdoses.
However, Half Nelson's story remains a flat line, with no twists or turns along the way, and the momentum bogs down just as Gosling bogs down in his cocaine dependency. I left the theatre feeling neither shaken nor stirred.
Like former Sundance poster child Maria Full of Grace, this is a nobly made film with its heart firmly in the right place, but it lacks energy and spirit. And as with Maria, critics and art house audiences will rave about it while it is still fresh in everyone's minds, but then they will quickly forget about it.