Half Nelson (2006)

Half Nelson first published by Film4

Summary: In Ryan Fleck’s debut feature, Ryan (The Believer) Gosling is an inner city teacher in crisis.

Review: American cinema’s image of the inner city high school has always been divided along strict ideological lines, generally allowing for only two plot types: in films of a liberal persuasion, teachers are inspirational alchemists able to elevate their young wards from underclass to top-of-the-class (Stand and DeliverLean on Me, Dangerous Minds); while in films of a more reactionary bent, teachers become enraged vigilantes, enforcing school discipline by beating the living crap out of their delinquent wards (Class of 1984The PrincipalOne Eight Seven). Ryan Fleck’s feature debut Half Nelson, however, is different. For while its teacher-protagonist conforms to the ‘inspirational’ pattern, his liberalism has lost its way in the realities of post-9/11 neo-conservatism. 

At a deprived junior high school in Brooklyn, Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) engages his students by abandoning altogether the standard curriculum – yet even as he teaches a system of Hegelian dialectics that defines history as a series of revolutions emerging from the confrontation of opposites, the contradictions in his own life seem set to explode. For he is all at once a devoted teacher and a crack addict, an idealist and a cynic, dedicated to helping others while determined to destroy himself. Most of all he feels desperately alone – so when he is caught getting high after school by Drey (Shareeka Epps), a quiet 13-year-old pupil with problems (and loneliness) of her own, she agrees to keep him company. From this act of kindness a bond of friendship develops that just might be the beginning of a personal revolution in both their lives.

“I’m a teacher – but what am I supposed to teach them?”, Dan asks the two women he has just picked up in a nightclub. Later, after quoting grim statistics on the percentage of Americans who still believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that there are Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, he will ask hopelessly, “So what do we do?” Trapped in a time when ‘liberal’ has become a dirty word, and when there no longer seems to be room for the kind of radical movements to which his parents once belonged, Dan struggles with his own internal dialectics about the power – and impotence – of individuals to change the world, and seeks refuge from his pain in a drug that just makes everything worse. Falling somewhere between Edward Norton and Paddy Considine at their most electrifying, Oscar-nominee Gosling is a class act, bringing cool intensity to this complex rôle. Equally excellent is Epps, whose great restraint strips the film of any unwelcome melodrama.

It may be named after a wrestling grip that is notoriously difficult to escape, but Half Nelson deftly wriggles its way out of all manner of irksome clichés. Dan certainly enthuses his pupils, but as a self-loathing addict he is neither miracle-worker nor saint, and at one point even comes dangerously close to committing rape. At the other end of the spectrum, neighbourhood dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie), far from being demonised, is surprisingly rounded, and – even more surprisingly – his eventual confrontation with Dan does not come to blows. Best of all, the redemptive ending that has become standard in such films is here nimbly side-stepped, as Fleck and his co-writer Anna Boden focus not on what becomes of these alienated characters, but rather merely on their potential, fulfilled or otherwise, for change. 

Verdict: High ideals clash with Bush-era realities in this class debut – well balanced, wonderfully performed, and refreshingly free from cliché.

© Anton Bitel