If a person is a drug addict does that make them a bad person, does it make them incapable of being a role model? If a teenage girl is alone in the world should she seek guidance from a teacher who has a more problematic life than her own, should she accept his guidance when it could be contradictory to his own personality? These are just a few of the many questions Half Nelson asks of its audience.
Half Nelson is the 2006, critically acclaimed, social drama starring Academy Award Nominee Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps and Anthony Mackie. Half Nelson was written for the screen by Anne Boden and Ryan Fleck, who also directed and it is based on a short film called Gowanus, Brooklyn, which was also written and directed by Boden and Fleck and is the setting for Half Nelson.
Dan Dunne (Gosling) is a young, inner-city High School teacher, who for reasons unbeknown to the audience has a drug habit. Although he has hidden his drug addiction for a certain amount of time, one of his students, Drey, discovers his problem after catching him in the midst of a drug induced state one night after school. Although causing slight tension at first, this incident manages to push the two closer together and through this new found bond they decide to help each other with the on going struggles they both have with life.
First of all, Half Nelson is not a movie solely about drug addiction nor is it an inspiring teacher/student tale, well not in the conventional Hollywood way anyway. Drug addiction is depicted very accurately and is delved into in detail at certain points in the movie but Half Nelson isn’t another Requiem for a Dream, nor should it try to be. It is a movie about friendship, the boundaries that some friendship’s hold and how characteristics of people affect friendships.
Dan is a capable and intelligent guy who is battling certain inner demons. He teaches dialectics of Power and World Politics, and teaches in a school which has a predominantly, under priviliged, African American student body. His classes are usually taught to 13-14 year old boys and girls, and Dan is usually teaching them whilst trying to get over the previous nights escapades. How then does he manage to teach such a convoluted subject to people who would usually have the classroom in frenzy due to boredom? He can do it because he is proficient and engaging, he knows how to relate to the children on a level which helps them understand, however this usually means him having to move away from the regular school curriculum.
Drey is a 13 year old girl who spends alot of her time alone. Her mother works all the hours god sends to support herself and Drey, her Father is nowhere to be seen throughout and her brother Mike is locked up in prison for what looks to be along time. The discovery of Dan’s addiction was an unfortunate accident but one of which she is not going to use as a tool of manipulation. Instead she is going to use it to her advantage and try and obtain some adult guidance of which she has been severely lacking in her life up to this point.
Dan constantly refers to a phrase in the movie “I’m just one man; one man can’t change the world”. He knows he can’t change the lives of most of the children in his class never mind the world, but if he can change one person’s life surely that must mean something, and so he begins his quest to try and input as much wisdom and advice onto Drey as he possibly can.
Dan is however riddled with doubts and contradictions. How is he supposed to counsel Drey when they both know he himself is far from perfect? Dan’s ambiguity is very much apparent when he goes to visit Frank, a local drug dealer who has also been spending a lot of time with Drey. The plot indicates that some time ago Frank (Anthony Mackie) had something to do with Drey’s brother going to jail, although this is never fully delved into.
Frank decides to start looking out for Drey a bit more, much to the dismay of Dan and so he decides to go and confront Frank and make it clear to him that he is a bad influence in Drey’s life. Dan wants to hit Frank, he wants to shout at him for being a detriment to Drey, he wants to say that people like him are ruining society and are laying the foundations for crime to be exploited in areas like Gowanus as well as all over the U.S, Dan wants to say all this, but he can’t. He can’t because firstly Frank is his supplier and so knows all about Dan’s drug addiction. Secondly, drug dealer or drug user what makes Dan any better of an influence in Drey’s life than Frank?
Applause must go to Boden and Fleck, first of all for their bravery as filmmakers. Half Nelson is a movie that has no breakthroughs, no instant recoveries and very few happy and joyful moments. The movies lack of high points however does not hinder it from being an enjoyable and engrossing story. Also it is a very intimate and at times claustrophobic piece; many shots are of conversations in the car between Drey and Dan or Drey and Frank or inside Dan’s small classroom. However this is a tool that has been used effectively by the director as it allocates the audience to be much more involved in the story, it allows them to gage the reactions of the characters just through the facial expressions they make.
The filmmakers should also be praised for the fact that they have ensured that the lead characters main flaw, which is drug addiction, doesn’t completely dominate the characters personality or the story itself. Dan has many flaws but with a character that is so damaged they still allow many of his strengths to show through, one being that he is a good teacher inspite of his problems. This means the audience isn’t told, subliminally, not to like him because he is a drug addict, as many Hollywood films often do.
Instead the audience gets to decide on there own whether to like Dan or not. This film with a few tweaks could easily have taken a different route so as to make people feel happier or more fulfilled while watching it, but thankfully it doesn’t. Boden and Fleck have made sure the movie feels like you are watching real life with real circumstances without it actually being factual.
Ryan Gosling delivers a superb performance as Dan Dunne. Gosling’s natural demeanour means the audience likes him even with the struggles he possesses and the awful actions he participates in throughout the movie. His ability to convey both intelligence and at times outright stupidity with equal measure was also very impressive. He may have had good performances before this, but Half Nelson truly showed the range Gosling has acquired during his development as an actor and he thoroughly deserved his Academy Award nomination.
Shareeka Epps gives a very subtle but effective performance. She doesn’t produce big reactions or deliver stunning pieces of dialogue, but Drey is a character who constantly feels isolated and alone and Epps manages to successfully transmit these feelings through her performance. Epps also shows maturity for her age as her character is very complex, however she doesn’t try to overact, but rather lets the camera do the work in capturing those complexities.
Finally, Half Nelson is a very accurate depiction of addiction along with being an emotional and absorbing tale of friendship. The combination of magnificent story telling and direction along with an outstanding leading performance add up to the making of an inspired social drama.