Half Nelson Review
An Oscar nominated Ryan Gosling turns in an exquisite performance as a drug-addicted teacher, matched only by 18-year-old Shareeka Epps who won an International Spirit Award as the pupil he reluctantly befriends. These performances make Half Nelson’s dramatic study of disillusioned and self-destructive Dan Dunne (Gosling) frighteningly honest as his world collides with pragmatic student Drey (Epps). An awkward moment when she discovers Dunne passed out from crack cocaine in a changing room toilet cubicle leads to a slow-burning friendship which will eventually mean they see each other’s demons laid bare in the most depressing of scenes. It is not always easy to watch, but the futility of the situations they are both in and Gosling’s ability to create sympathy with his character make it unmissable.
Director/writer Ryan Fleck and producer/co-writer Anna Boden titled the film Half Nelson from the professional wrestling immobilising hold that is difficult, if not impossible, to escape. Although Dunne is a charismatic history teacher few of his pupils can really appreciate in a desolate Brooklyn school, he refuses to play by headteachers wishes of a strict syllabus. Instead, he favours his own brand of smart and off-the-cuff learning. Behind all these enlightened moments, Dunne is stuck in a half nelson mindset: he has a dark side of smoking crack to cope with a life he is struggling to find direction in. When his friendship with Drey blossoms, it helps her escape from an unrewarding relationships with her cop mother and a drug dealer called Frank (Mackie). Then, suddenly, they find themselves confronted with the stark reality that neither of them have really escaped from their demons.
Although Dunne spends most of this time as his desk looking gaunt and spaced out from his private activities, it is still possible to be drawn to his character by his impressive dynamic with the children he teaches: he isn’t the dull history lecturer who only cares about dates, he wants his class to develop and expand their philosophies of life. Drey, meanwhile, is a cynical teenager, intense with maturity beyond her years but also a certain innocence that comes with it. Watching an uncomfortable initial bond become so vital to their daily routine is a rewarding experience. But when Frank begins to question their relationship, his reputation as a dealer threatens to expose the extent of Dunne’s drug problems to Drey and destroy their bond.
When there are two leads as strong as Gosling and Epps, they bring you into a believable situation as through you are watching a documentary. Fleck’s jerky camera and selective choice of what we see of the pair are key to this and make a mockery of the one teacher changing a whole classroom of kids like in Dangerous Minds or the more recent Freedom Writers. It is much more likely a teacher like Dunne would be able to impact on one child once they leave the classroom and that is exactly what he finds himself doing. Even as he doses himself on the nearest banned substance, his obvious desire to look after Drey is heart-warming and the sign of a man wanting to escape his vices or at least stop someone else fall into the half nelson position he has. For the viewer it is an engrossing movie full of truths about real people and not tainted by need to offer an ending that rights all the wrongs. Half Nelson offers comfort, but only in the suggestion of what choices Dunne and Drey could make. The silver lining is in the hope there is always a moment when you have the choice to change for the better. Now that’s a truth we can all relate too.
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