Director : Ryan Fleck
Screenplay : Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Ryan Gosling (Dan Dunne), Shareeka Epps (Drey), Anthony Mackie (Frank), Monique Gabriela Curnen (Isabel), Karen Chilton (Karen), Tina Holmes (Rachel), Collins Pennie (Mike), Deborah Rush (Jo), Jay O. Sanders (Russ), Bryce Silver (Bernard), Sebastian Sozzi (Javier), Nicole Vicius (Cindy), Tristan Wilds (Jamal)
“I don’t know!” the young teacher at the heart of Half Nelson screams in absolute agony when faced with a crucial question about how he can positively impact a young life, and in that one line of dialogue lies the central power of Ryan Fleck’s film. Half Nelson takes one of the most beloved of Hollywood’s uplifting genres--the story of the dedicated teacher who, against all odds, inspires his or her troubled students to greatness--and undercuts it without completely sacrificing idealism. When so many films offer pat answers that send the audience out with a false sense of reassurance, Half Nelson has the brave audacity to answer the myriad painful issues it brings up with “I don’t know.”
The central character is someone who truly, genuinely wants to make a difference, but finds himself faced with a world of such obstacles that he retreats into a personal morass of self-destructive behavior and drug abuse in an attempt to ward off his demons. His name is Dan Dunne, and he is played by Ryan Gosling (The Notebook) in a performance of such raw sincerity and heartbreaking pathos that you forget what an obvious construction his character is. In recent years, Gosling has emerged as the best young American actor of his generation, and his performance here will only cement that standing. Wearing a scruffy beard and an air of barely resigned defeat, he is a powerfully convincing central character, one with whom we sympathize greatly without every pitying.
Dan is an eighth-grade history teacher in an inner-city school deep in the heart of Brooklyn. He eschews the provided curriculum in favor of off-the-cuff, but deeply heartfelt lectures about the importance of understanding history, rather than just memorizing it. He speaks primarily of dialectics, the tensions between two opposing forces. Director Ryan Fleck and his writing partner and editor Anna Boden can be forgiven if they push this idea a little too much, for it is central to their vision of Dan’s character and the world in general.
Dan himself is a dialectic, hence a metaphor, which is a risky move for a film protagonist that is salvaged by Gosling’s fine performance. Dan is torn between his desire to change the world and his increasingly desperate realization that he can’t, at least not in the grand, awe-inspiring ways that he envisioned as an eager, idealistic college student. He started using drugs as a way to escape the pain of life, and it has turned into a crutch that bears increasingly heavy loads of psychological weight. Gosling conveys with terrible accuracy the toll Dan’s dependency has on his body and his soul, and when we see him hit rock bottom near the end, it is all the more horrible to see not because of melodramatic overload, but because Dan smiles all the way through it in a way that suggests both blissful vacancy and forced resignation.
In his classroom, which is populated almost entirely by black and Hispanic students, Dan lectures about how the world is structured into opposing forces, illustrating it at one point by arm-wrestling one of his students. His unorthodox approach inspires them during class, but interestingly enough we don’t see its effects outside the classroom. At one point, Dan is approached by the father of one of his former students who is now a successful college student majoring in history, but that is all we hear of his successes.
Instead, the film, with its shaky, semi-documentary handheld aesthetic (its only real cliché), focuses on Dan and his relationship with Drey (Shareeka Epps), a 13-year-old student of his who catches him in the bathroom smoking crack after school one day. “One thing doesn’t make a man,” Dan tells her at one point, trying to elude the effect drugs have on his life (at another point, he explains to someone that he is “in control” of his drug habit). Drey understands Dan’s frustrations with life; she is the child of an overworked single mother whom she barely sees, and spending so much time on her own has made her self-reliant, but also hard on the edges. Drey resists easy reading, partially because of Epps’ excellent, natural performance, which never turns her into an object of condescending compassion.
The only other person Drey has in her life with any consistency is Frank (Anthony Mackie), a neighborhood drug dealer who was friends with Drey’s currently incarcerated brother and feels responsible. The film’s treatment of Frank is another example of its sensitivity and complexity. Frank could have easily been demonized as the cause of so many problems in America’s inner cities and used as an easy straw man against whom we could judge Dan and his noble desire to help Drey. Instead, Frank is depicted as a man who has chosen the only path in life that he sees as viable and rewarding (for him, a “legitimate” job is limited to flipping burgers for $150 a week). While his choice of profession may not be admirable, he genuinely cares for Drey and wants to help her, even if that means bringing her into his “business.”
This returns us to Dan, who wants Frank to stay away from Drey even though it is baseheads like him who keep Frank and other dealers in business. He is both a victim and a savior--yet another dialectic the film uses to sidestep the usual pathos and pitfalls of the noble teacher genre. Half Nelson doesn’t pretend that nobility equals goodness in absolute terms. Dan is noble, but he is also deeply flawed, and his ability to help Drey is balanced by her ability to help him. It is the kind of relationship that goes straight to the heart not because it is contrived to do so, but because there is so much humanity in it, both good and bad. Imagine that--another dialectic . . .
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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