RANK: # 9


2006, R, 116 mins.

Dan Dunne: Ryan Gosling / Drey: Shareeka Epps / Frank: Anthony Mackie / Isabel: Monique Gabriela Curnen / Karen: Karen Chilton

Directed by Ryan Fleck /  Written by Fleck and Anna Boden

In a lesser filmmaker’s hands, HALF NELSON could have easily degenerated into on of those shamelessly saccharine and would-be inspirational teacher/mentor high school melodramas.  They seem to be a definite dime a dozen these days. 

You know, the kind of cheap, manipulative claptrap story that has a socially outcast teacher that none of his/her colleagues accept or admire who is able to forge a winning relationship with his rather troublesome students.  Furthermore, the charismatic and rebellious teacher is able to instill a larger sense of purpose in his otherwise apathetic pupils, so much so to the point where they all have epiphanies and go on to much more rewarding and fulfilling lives.  I like to say that these films suffer from DEAD POET'S SYNDROME, named after the film of the same relative name. 

A variation on this genre is the inner city high school drama, which further sees other permutations -  such as the inner city/sports genre - where games like basketball are thrown into the mix for added dramatic padding.  Ripe with annoying clichés, warmed over and unrealistic personas, and woefully manufactured moments of enriching euphoria, these films desperately try to tug at audience heartstrings to the point of nauseating overkill.   The teachers in these films, despite being mutinous on a basic educator and curriculum level, are usually overwhelmingly good people who never attain popularity with colleagues, but they sure do with their students.  The students, meanwhile, are typically a ragtag group of societal misfits that the teacher – no matter what – will fix for the better.  Do these formulas sound familiar?

Perhaps this is why HALF NELSON is such a quiet, understated, and masterfully mounted drama.  It takes the standard elements of these motivational inner city high school flicks and wickedly turns them up on their heads.  It is unlike any contemporary high school film that I have ever seen.  HALF NELSON goes against the grain of witless and moronic formulas that permeate these types of films and instead goes for gritty verisimilitude at every corner.  People don’t necessarily change for the better at the end of this film.  Characters are not narrowly defined as black and white entities.  Life, as a whole, is structured in a much more decided grey areas.  The film's world view is - for the most part - fairly bleak.

Perhaps even more crucially, HALF NELSON does not involve downtrodden people that are motivated to achieve ultimate victory either on the school front or athletic front.  There is no big game for the underdogs to win against all odds in the final act.  There is no teacher that inspires his kids to be all that they can be.  In short, it is how HALF NELSON is so rigidly atypical that makes it special.  The film is about deeply flawed individuals who all try to make some semblance of their lives and how they fit into the big picture.  The film is undeniably fascinating for looking at the subjugated – warts and all – by not sugarcoating them in the slightest.  These are people that may not be able to be saved, nor do they want any spiritual rescuing.

It is that heightened moral ambiguity that makes the film all the more enticing and intriguing.  Beyond that is the unique handling of the main teacher role in the film.  He is not perfect.  He does not conduct himself flawlessly in and out of the classroom.  He does – to a small degree – genuinely inspire his students, but not in the awe-inspiring ways that other genre films showcase.  More crucially, HALF NELSON’s educator is arguably as emotionally damaged and troubled as his students.  The fact that he is a habitual crack addict only embellishes this point.  The teacher – played is an astonishing performance by Ryan Gosling – is neither Mr. Holland from MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS or John Keating from DEAD POET’S SOCIETY.  No, the teacher in HALF NELSON is more like Travis Bickle with book smarts.

Like Bickle, Dan Dunne is a hopeless loner who does damaging things to himself.  Teaching is one of his few outlets for catharsis.  He does not look to change the world, but if he can get his inner city students to start thinking about issues beyond their classroom, then he feels some level of pride.  Yet, Dan is unlike just about any movie teacher that I am aware of.  He dresses like a slacker with an untucked shirt, bad tie, and has constant five o’clock shadow every minute of the day.  He lives in a drabby and dilapidated Brooklyn apartment that looks close to being condemned.  He looks sick all the time, kind of like he has not slept in weeks.  Maybe he hasn’t.  As the film opens his alarm clock goes off, but it appears that he has not slept.  He is sitting up, in his underwear and little else, in a drug hazed stupor after an apparent all-night cocaine bender.  He’s in a perpetual foggy state.  This guy, obviously, is not every parent’s idea of a good role model. 

Yet, HALF NELSON is also about breaking down metaphorical barriers that distance people with one another.  Is Dan a despicable person or teacher?  Hardly.  He is, in fact, a very good high school teacher.  Sure, he throws out the curriculum guides, but one obviously needs other methods to communicate to his kids about history.  His strategies and skills are remarkably subtle and simplistic.  He is cogent and gets his points across incredibly clear.  The character is astonishingly bipolar.  When at home or – amazingly – in the high school’s bathrooms or lounges, the guy is an absolute drug-addicted basket case that looks for any angle to get high.  However, when he enters the classroom, he comes alive.  Yes, Dan is a terribly self-destructive figure that risks his livelihood, but he is a gifted educator.  Teaching, in an odd ways, is his medicine for his pain.

The students – who seem unaware that their teacher is an addict – like and respect the man, even if he wanders into class looking like the undead everyday.  The same can’t be said of Dan’s fellow teachers, who all seem to suspect that there is more to his extracurricular activities that he is leading on.  Things come to a fever pitch when – during one night – Dan decides to go to a girl’s bathroom after a basketball game (he is the coach) and starts to light up.  Higher than a kite, he meanders in and out of unconsciousness, but he sure seems to wake up when his student, Drey (in an equally thoughtful and brilliant performance by Shareeka Epps) finds him.  Shockingly, neither seems to make a big deal of it.  He matter-of-factly apologies to her, she accepts, he sobers up and drives her home, during which she says good night and they part ways.  It’s an odd sequence, but it only highlights the despair and chaos that highlights these peoples’ lives.  In a dingy, decaying urban jungle, maybe it’s not a surprise to see one's teacher as a drug addict.

They soon form a bond, but it’s not one of those awful, one-note relationships where both grow to accept each other with open arms.  The exchanges between the two are remarkable frank and honest.  During one scene where he drives her home after yet another unsuccessful basketball game, he tries to explain his actions.  The ref, it seems, was making bad calls all night.  He used variations of the f-bomb that most teachers should never use in front of students, threw the ball in anger at the ref, quickly got kicked out of the game, and later punched a wall and hurt his hand.  Dan tries to cover up his actions.  She responds by saying, “It must have just felt good to let it out.”  Dan tells her, “Yeah, but there are other ways of ‘getting it out.’”  She corners him.  “Like what you do,” she asks him.  Dan knows he’s cornered and knows she’s right.  Later, he wisely points out, "One thing doesn't make a man."  He too has a good point.  Yes, he is a man with deep addiction problems and needs help, but he’s a good teacher and more decent than his drug-induced lifestyle would let on.

Their relationship continues to grow to the point where both seem to want to save the other but ultimately realize that it might not be possible.  Dan is a hopeless crack smoker that does not look to end his bad habit.  Drey, on the same token, also desires to engage in a lot of shady activity with her new friend, a neighborhood drug dealer (played with a slimy charisma by Anthony Mackie).  Like Travis Bickle before him, Dan wants to be Drey’s knight in shining armor.  Two things impede his quest.  First, Drey does not appear to want saving.  Second, Dan is actually a client of the drug dealer, which makes his quest somewhat hypocritical. 

HALF NELSON is a film of such uncompromising authority and of unflinching sentiment.  It does many things with a virtuoso level of assuredness.  It presents lower class Brooklyn neighborhoods and schools (often not seen in films) and shows them in all levels of grungy detail.  The film has so much veracity with the way it presents its crumbling environments.  The film gets subtle nuances down perfectly as well.  Things like the fact that Dan never uses bed sheets, that his sink looks like it’s never been cleaned, that the shirts he wears never looked ironed.  Dan’s clothing and home eerily reflect his borderline disillusionment.  His life – emotionally and physically – is in disarray. 

Perhaps the hallmark of the film is in its performances, and the film has two of the best of the year in Gosling and young Epps.  Gosling has been in a lot of lighter fare (he was good in the romantic melodrama THE NOTEBOOK and was also strong in other recent films like THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND and THE BELIEVER).  His performance in HALF NELSON is a breathtaking revelation, like seeing a young Brando or DeNiro beginning to show their strengths as performers of such powerfully understated authority.   Gosling’s performance as Dan is a textbook exercise in careful, underplayed restraint.  He never has to yell or overact to relay emotions to the audience.  He acts with his eyes and is able to effectively communicate the most complex feelings with the most limiting of physical jesters.  He also wisely plays his role not as a stereotypical druggie that is perpetually twitchy and looks like a loose canon.  There is a peculiar serenity and calmness to Dan, who often gets far with his soft-spokenness to his students.  Epps is also subtly strong in her performance as she is able to stand her ground with her troubled teacher.  Both performances are the anchor of HALF NELSON and the rest build on top of their solid foundation.  Realistically, though, this is Gosling’s film and his work reveals him to be one of the industry’s best young actors.  He does not play Dan as much as he inhabits him.  Note to Academy: don't overlook him next year.

HALF NELSON is an urban high school melodrama that may be too much of a bitter pill for some viewers to stomach.  It approaches a level of realism and psychological complexity that is all but void in other similar high school genre films, not to mention that the mentor/teacher figure in the film is as emotionally ravaged as his students.   Furthermore, nihilism and desperation are awash in the film.  The future seems bleak and the chance of its characters bettering themselves seems unlikely.  This is a film about flawed people that want to reach out and help others but don’t want to accept help when others deliver it.  That’s what makes the film work so well.  It takes familiar themes and issues and radically revamps them.  With tight and confident direction, extraordinarily commanding performances, and a narrative that avoids wretched clichés, HALF NELSON emerges – paradoxically – as one of 2006’s most hopeful and inspirational films.  Despite its bleakness moral outlook, the film still hints at –without directly showing – redemption after damnation.   The film is truthful and potent in a way few films are and it displays Ryan Gosling as the actor to watch out for.  He is so effortlessly mesmerizing in the film that you kind of get lost in it and forget you're watching an actor.  In that way, HALF NELSON is a real out-of-body experience.  You're not just viewing the film, you're experiencing it.

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