February 3, 2007
Despite the overwhelming of hype of Little Miss Sunshine, Half Nelson is 2006’s little, independent film-that-could, catapulted into the mainstream thanks to an Academy Award nomination for Ryan Gosling’s memorable performance as a high school history teacher addicted to crack. Regardless if he wins or not, this will certainly be seen as a breakthrough role for the actor.
Dan Dunne (Gosling) teaches history and coaches a girls’ basketball team at an inner city high school. He’s young enough to still have an idealistic streak and believe that he can reach some of his students with his refreshing, down-to-earth style of teaching (involving the concepts of dialectics). He’s a bit of a maverick, eschewing traditional school curriculum for his own views on history that usually take on a leftist slant (he gets his students to do reports critical of past U.S. policy). One student in particular, Drey (Epps), a 13-year-old girl, is receptive to his approach and also plays on the team. However, after a game she catches Dan zonked out of his head on crack, the pipe and lighter still in his hands. She is faced with a choice: does she tell someone about this or does she keep it to herself?
Instead of this moment being transformed into some hackneyed “turning point” in their relationship (as seen a million times before in other mentor stories), Dan and Drey strike up a curious friendship as they agree to keep his habit between them. She clearly looks up to him and is the student he can reach and impart some knowledge on. They are both loners by choice and this is part of what makes them friends. The rest of the film explores their complex relationship with each other and with those around them, taking unusual turns like when Dan confronts Frank (Mackie), a local drug dealer who is friends with Drey, and asks him to stay away from her. It looks like things will turn violent but then the dealer suddenly invites him to have a drink and the tension is quickly deflated. The two men realize that they both have Drey’s welfare at heart and this is their common ground.
Ryan Gosling is very good as a man struggling with his own addictions. It’s a performance grounded in realism and free of pretension as he immerses himself in this flawed but fascinating character. Dan may look like burn-out but he has strong political views (beautifully illustrated in a scene where urban folk singer Billy Bragg’s “A New England” plays on the soundtrack). The actor plays a functional drug addict and does a nice job of avoiding the usual junkie clichés one sees in movies, like “the vomiting in the bathroom scene” or showing up to social event stoned and making a fool of himself. What Gosling achieves with his performance is something closer to how a junkie really functions on a day-to-day basis. There are his good days, when he is able to keep it together and his bad days when he shuts everything and everyone else out. Dan sums it up rather nicely in one scene where he tells his class, “We are sinners but we can strive to be good.” He could easily be talking about himself.
Shareeka Epps plays Drey as an intelligent girl who is very receptive to her teacher’s unorthodox curriculum. She’s also street smart and independent, skills acquired from living with her single mom. However, Drey also hangs out with Frank, a friend of her brother Mike (who is currently in prison) and this brings up the possibility that she might follow in her sibling’s footsteps. Epps is excellent and brings a real intensity to her role. In her eyes you can see a girl who has already seen too much but she hasn’t given up yet. Drey still admires Dan despite the fact that he’s a drug addict.
Half Nelson is a very smart film that does a great job of avoiding clichés in favour of a character study with a political message. It’s one of those slice-of-life movies with an emphasis on characters and their behaviour. The film thankfully avoids the stereotypical pitfalls of other white teacher in the ghetto movies, like Dangerous Minds (1995) and more recently, Freedom Writers (2007), by presenting a deeply flawed protagonist and believable kids, not some thinly-sketched archetypes. Half Nelson also doesn’t offer any simple, pat answers but instead leaves things open-ended – much like in real life – allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions and to imagine what might happen to these characters in the future.
There is an audio commentary by writer/director Ryan Fleck and writer/producer Anna Boden. She divulges the meaning of the film’s title – it is a wrestling term that was meant to be a metaphor for the main character who is caught in an uncomfortable position and having difficulty getting himself free. Fleck points out that in the classroom scenes they used a lot of actual school kids and that Gosling enjoyed this because it kept things fresh take after take because he had to perform for them like real teacher. They talk about how they got Toronto indie rock band Broken Social Scene to do the score and touch upon many other aspects of the film, including casting and the camerawork.
“Outtakes” is a collection of bloopers that consist of blown lines and Gosling goofing around on set. This is pretty funny stuff, especially for such a dramatic film.
Also included are three deleted scenes with another exchange between Dan and a fellow teacher, a nice bit with Drey and her mom, and a scene where Dan talks to Drey after class about being late. It is obvious why this footage was cut as it is pretty inconsequential stuff.
There are four extended scenes, brief extensions to existing scenes with the highlight being an alternate ending to the scene where Dan confronts Frank.
Finally, there is a music video for “Wanted” by Rhymefest, a rap track with clips from the movie.