2006Director: Ryan Fleck
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie
here are so many pitfalls Half Nelson could have fallen into, but never does. There are so many wrong steps it could have taken—into sentimentality, pious liberalism, melodrama, forced comedy—but it unswervingly follows its own emotional logic to reveal truths about both its characters and society that have the ring of pure honesty. A film about a white inner-city school teacher interacting with a mostly poor, mostly black group of students, Half Nelson could have been a cheap tearjerker or a lazy morality play masquerading as an ennobling call to the human spirit. In other words, it could have been Dangerous Minds.
Instead, it is a low-budget, little-hyped masterpiece. The feature length fleshing out of a short film entitled Gowanus, Brooklyn, director Ryan Fleck and his co-writer Anna Boden have crafted a brilliantly subtle and unnervingly powerful examination of what happens to idealism when it smashes up against an often brutal reality. Ryan Gosling portrays Dan Dunne, a twentysomething history teacher in an almost all-black Brooklyn middle school eager to expose his students to ideas beyond the narrow confines of the school board-approved textbook. Dunne has clearly read his Hegel, talking about “dialectics” and the processes of historical change in ways that are understandable to and actually engage his young charges. Of course, this meets with disapproval from the higher-ups, whose reasons for opposing Dunne’s deviations are less ideological than pragmatic—their kids have to pass mandatory testing, after all, and it seems a lot easier to demand the rote memorization of civil rights history than it is to ask a bunch of thirteen-year olds to explore the sociopolitical barriers to meaningful change. These scenes work with a painful authenticity, as the hidebound bureaucracy of the school system is portrayed not as teeth-gnashingly evil, but rather as exhaustedly resigned to compromise and defeat.
This, of course, is in some ways a more depressing state of affairs, as Dunne well knows. Despite his energetic attempts to stimulate the critical thinking faculties of his students, the game is rigged against both he and the kids, and he slowly begins to sink into despair. A full-fledged drug addict who spends his nights either getting high or cruising bars for lackluster hookups (some of whom he bores to tears with disquisitions on modern philosophy), most of Dunne’s waking hours are devoted to a kind of self-destructive dulling of pain. If he can’t change the world, at least he’ll inure himself to its injustices. This plan is proceeding along nicely until one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), finds him in a stall in the ladies’ room, shaking and nearly passed out after a bout of crack smoking.
The depressed recognition that passes across her face as she discovers Dunne makes us aware that she has seen this kind of thing before—indeed, probably more than once. With a mother working two jobs to keep the family afloat and a brother already in jail for dealing, Dray is a bright, motivated, and sympathetic kid who is edging closer and closer to falling under the sway of Frank (Anthony Mackie), the charismatic neighborhood kingpin who used to employ her brother and who sends money her family’s way as a reward for her brother’s refusal to give him up to the cops. Perhaps recognizing a kindred spirit in her idealistic but troubled teacher, Drey and Dunne strike up a tentative friendship that forms the heart of the film. Both are potentially headed for a serious fall—Dunne with his ever-increasing substance abuse, and Drey with her financial temptations. Refusing to kowtow to convention and expectation, Half Nelson lets neither character off the hook, but nor does it head relentlessly into grim hopelessness. How Dunne and Dray challenge, disappoint, and inspire each other is fascinating and endlessly watchable, and points the way to a denouement that feels as hard-earned as it is hopeful, as ambiguous as it is moving.
Most commentary on this film will inevitably (and already has) focused on the acting, and for good reason. Gosling, in particular, is extraordinary, with his shaggy pseudo-beard, short-sleeved shirts, and scrawny frame all suggesting what his haunted eyes make explicit—this is a broken-down True Believer looking for a reason to regain his faith, while growing increasingly convinced that it’s not going to happen. The drug scenes are appropriately harrowing, but Gosling’s real achievement lies in their aftermath, when he projects a combination of self-loathing and desperate desire for redemption, hoping against hope that he can once again become the teacher and mentor figure his students apparently take him for. Epps, in her first real film role, is exceptional, quietly observant in a way that says more than any heavy-handed speech ever could. They are supported by a screenplay and beautifully modulated direction that avoids clichéd sentiment in favor of a penetrating insight that is simply absent from most films of this or any other ilk.
Maybe my favorite scene in Half Nelson comes during the inevitable confrontation between Dunne and Frank the drug dealer (played with more charm than menace by Anthony Mackie) over Drey’s future. Dunne makes the usual stay-away-from-her noises, while Frank objects to the teacher’s Great White Father pretensions and obvious hypocrisy—Dunne is one of his customers, after all. The argument then moves in a completely unexpected but thoroughly justifiable direction that reveals just how observant this film really is, humanizing both characters without romanticizing either one of them. At moments like this, both the characters and the film come close to achieving that rarest of things—a state of grace.
Half Nelson is currently playing in limited release.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2006-09-08