If you’re into drama movies, watching Half Nelson will likely entertain you. Not all that much actually happens on screen and you may feel frustrated with its ambiguously unresolved final scene. But if you love nuanced character studies and appreciate acting, you’ll rank Half Nelson among the best cinematic experiences of the summer.
The premise sounds half-baked – a developing friendship between cocaine-addicted junior high history teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) and student Drey (Shareeka Epps) at a crossroads, yet Half Nelson eloquently reveals more truth through Dan’s drug haze than any education-based film in recent memory. With far more gritty social realism than Dead Poets Society, Lean on Me, or (ugh) Mr. Holland’s Opus, Ryan Fleck’s movie profoundly explores its territory.
Just don’t expect this to be promoted by your local college of education. It violates a basic tenet of the profession that has long emphasized theory over practice – how teachers must be role models and paragons of virtue to inspire their students to excellence. Having taught for over 25 years, I know that is a load of crap. What student in his right mind would want to emulate the lifestyle of their teacher? Why endure the continual struggle to barely cover the bills from paycheck to paycheck and jump through all the hoops required by bureaucrats? Why subject yourself to daily performances for an indifferent audience? Why suffer the indignities from non-teachers who offer the standard cliché (“those who can… do, and those who can’t… teach”) and other condescending sentiments?
Of course, if you have willfully chosen to be a teacher, you know how to counter all the crap. Whether you view your role as a conveyor of information online or as a crusader to help transform society, your mission is clear. And you realize that you’ll receive only rare positive feedback, but will feel successful if you significantly impact just one student per year. You also know that the professional ideal promotes the idea of being Mr./Ms. Perfect to inspire others properly, and are always painfully aware of your shortcomings.
Dan Dunne knows all this. He knows that he gets another new day at sunrise and has a job to do, even from the first frame where we watch the underwear-clad teacher stumble for the alarm clock in a stupor, and eventually face his adolescent inner-city class. His apartment is a mess – filled with books, dirty laundry, yard sale furniture, unmade bed, a pet cat. A typical domicile of a young, single male, it reflects his empty life.
Coming from middle-class boomer parents, he’s essentially taken on their personas. His parents once wanted to change the world, but like many hippies found refuge only through drugs. Disillusionment does that to people. Dan admires his parents for their part in “stopping the war”, to which his mother (bleary-eyed by booze) responds “That’s nice, dear.” She does understand but wishes her son would “clean up a little.”
Dan retains his parent’s idealistic liberal sensibilities. With good intentions he sincerely strives to reach his Brooklyn students and “save” at least one. Effectively reaching his charges through self-deferential humor, being relatively honest about Life, and coaching the girls’ basketball team, Dunne is at his best in front of his class. Inner-city students have keenly tuned bullshit detectors, so Dan comes across as a fellow rebel thanks to his demeanor – especially when confronted by his African American supervisor for not sticking to her assigned textbook curriculum on civil rights.
Having watched Dan’s private lair, we suspect what’s actually behind those sunken eyes, but he camouflages his flaws by summoning a smiling mask and eye sparkle. The film takes an abrupt turn when Drey discovers her coach cowering in a restroom stall, crack vial in hand. The rest of the full movie primarily revolves around their relationship, with Dan’s supplier, Frank (Anthony Mackie) equally vying to establish himself as Drey’s mentor.
Ryan Gosling’s Best Performance
What could have developed into a dreadfully dull urban portrait is transformed by absolutely mesmerizing performances by Gosling and Epps. Ryan has established himself among the finest actors of his generation through provocative intellectual choices, first drawing notice as a conflicted Jewish skinhead in The Believer and raves as a brilliant sociopath in Murder by Numbers. He even made Nick Cassavetes’ insipid The Notebook tolerable. But this is Gosling’s most nuanced role; he naturally inhabits his character so completely that we empathize with his shortcomings, even when he’s blundering away romantic relationships, awkwardly attempting to protect Drey, or pitifully encountering the proud parent of one of his former (and forgotten) students. Gosling doesn’t achieve this by overacting; he just “becomes” the alienated basehead that is able to pull himself together (most days) to engage his junior class.
Epps firmly holds her own with Gosling, using few words but an abundance of intelligent and knowing looks as she navigates her way in the maze. Her restrained character adds balance and intensity, especially showcased when she discovers online her teacher’s secret, when she asserts her independence, and when she confronts a bicycle thief.
Whether Drey serves as a wake-up call for Dan to free himself of his addiction and deal with his students in the here and now as opposed to idealistic abstractions glimpsed between crackhead sessions remains for post-mortems. That’s what would make this a far better teacher training preparation than the various inspirational similar flicks online, though school administrators would cower at the thought and school boards would be up in arms about Half Nelson. They see that their mission is to protect their students from teachers who engage in such unethical behavior.
The thing is, these teachers do exist and have been around for decades. The movie flashed me back to the early 1970s, reminding me of a former teaching colleague/roommate who likewise was heavily addicted to drugs, yet had a good heart and loved working with kids. This story didn’t end well – an inevitable divorce, firing, and jail time. But Half Nelson can also apply in a more general sense to most teachers. Most are idealists, yet remain fallible, vulnerable human beings – full of doubt but continually hoping that they are able to make a difference for at least one student, realizing that that student may well remain anonymous. To watch Half Nelson is such an experience – a potent character study that refuses to vanish from memory for days. And those are the best type of films!