Half Nelson

(USA - 2006)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Karen Chilton, Tina Holmes
Genre: Drama
Director: Ryan Fleck
Screenplay: Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden
Cinematography: Andrij Parekh
Composer: Broken-Social-Scene
Runtime: 106 minutes

“One thing does not make a man” – Dan Dunne

Complex, nuanced, and resonant, Half Nelson asks no simple questions and provides no easy solutions. The multiple facets of the far from black & white characters seep into the film through little details, which allows for a rare sense of discovery. The characters are three dimensional, sometimes noble but more often hypocritical, sometimes strong but more often weak. In other words, human to a fault.

Despite the best of intentions, Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) would be judged poorly by almost anyone who really knew him. They certainly wouldn’t want him around their child. Luckily for him, at school most people see his charming likable side. One of the two stretch premises Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden ask us to accept is a crack addict can be reliable enough day in and day out to hold a long hours job of teaching history and coaching girls basketball. Even in good realistically intentioned independent films, screenwriting is often about fitting your situations to the characters and world you wish to depict. We are not told how to judge any of the studied characters, in fact much of the point is we are urged not to because life is a lot more complicated than good guys and bad guys. Thus Fleck and Boden avoid highlighting, though their reliance on closeup sometimes undermines this, and refuse to stack the deck for or against anyone.

Dan has greatly reduced his goals. He was going to change the world through the truth, but he’s outraged by the fact people must not give a damn since most of the information is well known. Three decades after the U.S. undermined democracy in Chile, U.S. citizens still believe spreading democracy is the primary goal of the various U.S. foreign interventions. Proving there’s no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq didn’t change anything, if Rick Moranis kept combing the desert one of these days they’d turn up in his bristle. Showing there was no link between then enemies Sadaam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden and that Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 didn’t matter because Sadaam’s a bad guy and we’re always the good guys.

In a sense, Dan’s nihilism matches that of the world he can’t reach or change. He’s a representative of the new left, succumbing to the helplessness of an ever right shifting world. The disillusioned but still principled character uses drugs to make it through life, which riddles his personal life in the expected ways, making the micro almost as impossible as he cannot form lasting relationships. When you believe in peace and nations solving problems through discourse, that you can’t do the same with another person weighs heavily as a violation of principle and mentality. It makes you blame yourself because you couldn’t get the job done, and repeated failures can transform the feeling to self-loathing.

Dan’s ability to interest and inspire his students is largely derived from his insistence on straying from the curriculum as much as he can get away with. He teaches the principles then asks the kids to plug facts into these models. They learn things like one person alone is weak, and how to identify those who are with and against you. Most importantly, he teaches them to think critically. Still, Fleck & Boden don’t act as if many of the kids even bother to listen. Arguably Dan’s only certain accomplishment is paving the way for a former student to become a history major at Georgetown, but he was too intoxicated to comprehend her father’s appreciative informing.

The second shaky premise is Drey (Shareeka Epps) is used to the fallibility of adults due to her parents broken marriage, so she understands their games, tricks, and downfalls. She doesn’t fully commit herself, keeping herself somewhat distant and aloof, but she certainly paid attention to Dan’s critical thinking lessons, keeping her from buying into what others are selling.

Rather than the usual paranoia riddled, community destroying nonsense where an adult who takes an interest in a child must be a pedophile, Half Nelson shows some reasons adults need Drey. First and foremost, they have to hope she’s trustworthy because she knows Dan’s a basehead due to catching him using in the locker room and Frank (Anthony Mackie in a high quality charismatic performance) is a drug dealer because her brother is in prison for helping him out. A person you can trust at any age is valuable, but helps two problems considering much of their isolation is self-imposed due to having something to hide.

Drey’s father forgets she even exists, and her mother does her best but is always working double shifts, so Drey could use an adult or two in her life. Mutual need is the basis for a potentially lasting friendship; if it’s one sided the giver’s charity tends to run out. Drey considers Dan her friend because he does her favors like driving her home from basketball, and spends some time with her. His personality captivates her, and he’s able to hold her interest, which along with his secret contradiction peaks her curiosity.

Anything but the typical inspirational tale of good teacher saving the motivated student from violent and dangerous slum life, Half Nelson is more about the impotence of adults to figure out the means to do so. Dan understands what he’s trying to accomplish, at least when he isn’t drugged out of his mind, but Fleck & Boden aren’t about having superheroes, which allows them to acknowledge the goal is the easy part. The difficult part is the interaction with others that gives you the potential to achieve it.

Dan’s goal is to keep Drey away from Frank so she doesn’t end up a delivery girl, at best, but Frank’s a friend of the family who has known her for years. Confronting him and convincing him to cease and desist are two different beasts, especially when Dan is as questionable a role model. If anything, Frank has the moral high ground since his relationship with drugs is simply profiteering. We see the selfishness in Dan & Frank’s little battles over Drey, keeping self-interest in the equation adds a dimension of honesty that’s sorely lacking in most films. Half Nelson isn’t about providing trumped up victories, but simply continuing to find the strength to fight even if in an uncertain stumbling and bumbling manner. That strength doesn’t always lie within yourself, it sometimes needs to come from another.

Half Nelson fails when Fleck & Boden get too cute. The juxtaposition is often contrived. The oral reports of historical political changes are clumsily and abruptly inserted, but, in addition to the obvious, help show we know very little of what went on in the past on a large scale, just as we know little of the small scale, the truth of another person. The picture we imagine is, at best, a slice of the whole.

Gosling plays a highly contradictory character as in The Believer, this time doing an even more extraordinary job. He attempts to balance what’s important with what will get him by, to deal with failure and underachieving, with knowing he’s a terrible role model but trying to play a good one anyway because it’s expected of him.

Epps, who was kept on when Fleck & Boden expanded their award winning short Gowanus, Brooklyn into this feature stands toe to toe with the adults. Her Independent Spirit win was one of the only things they did right in 2007. Drey’s knowledge keeps Dan & Frank in line, so she can keeps her mouth shut. What she doesn’t say conveys the restraint the adults lack though looks and glances. Gosling & Epps performances are exceptional in part because they compliment perfectly. He tries to sway her with every type of expression, but she just stares at him as if to say “I’m not buying.” Drey observes that all the adults are both good and bad, and manages largely to stay above the fray so the difficult film can provide some hope for the future.



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