Think Film Company
Not another Stand and Deliver: Half Nelson deviates from the typical storyline of a white teacher in an inner city school.
Half Nelson breaks free of Hollywood mold
By Leonard Quart
The powerfully and subtly performed and scripted Half Nelsona low budget, realistically shot, independent filmis a striking debut from director and screenwriter Ryan Fleck and his co-writer Anna Boden. Set in a derelict Brooklyn of abandoned lots, ominous night streets, and claustrophobic apartments, the film centers on the relationship between a drug-addicted, politically left-leaning, over-30 junior high school history teacher, Dan Dunne (the gifted Ryan Gosling) and a clear-eyed, independent, basically innocent African-American 13-year-old student, Drey (Shareeka Epps).
The dark glasses wearing, chain-smoking, haunted-looking Dan teaches history to a class of AfricanAmericans and Hispanics. Hes a passionate and hip teacher, who instructs the students (delivering the truth rather than using the Socratic method) on the civil rights movement, Attica, and Americas role in the destruction of Salvatore Allende. Half Nelson, however, avoids the facile optimism of so many Hollywood inspirational films about teachers who save their students from the perniciousness of the streets like Stand and Deliver and Lean On Me. Dans pupils dont suddenly become infused with political idealism, but his teaching makes some more conscious of politics and history, while the others remain asleep or incapable of hearing anything. And for all Dans passion, one senses that the students dont exist for him as individuals until he gets to know Drey.
Drey discovers Dan lying on the school bathroom floor with a crack pipe in his hand. She doesnt turn him in to the school authorities, but this tough, knowing girl gradually builds a relationship with him. And Dan, in turn, a man who is seemingly without friends; who is emotionally removed from his alcoholic, disenchanted 60s activist parents; and whose relationships with women are purely sexual, establishes an awkward, paternal intimacy with her. Its clear that the solitary Drey is someone who needs a father.
The other significant character in the film is a slick, smart midlevel drug dealer, Frank (Anthony Mackie). In his insidious way, Frank truly cares for Drey. And though corrupt, hes in control of his life, so hes disturbed by the anarchic Dans influence over Drey. But the film avoids the predictable, and eschews violent confrontations between them.
The films three central characters are intricately rendered, all touched with contradictions. Dan is the most layered of themopposed to the powers that be, but too self-destructive and despondent to do more than indulge in rebellious gestures. And though usually sensitive to Dreys feelings, hes callous in his relations with the women he spends the night with.
Dan is also a crack addict, but this isnt a film about the nature of addiction. And though Half Nelson does not hide its left sympathies, the dreams of the 60s are over, and there is only disillusionment in its wake. The only hope the film leaves, is the capacity of a broken man like Dans capacity to create a bond with Drey. There are no utopias in the offing just a small film with a great deal of emotional and intellectual resonance.