Saturday, September 23, 2006
Written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Directed by Ryan Fleck
A teacher tries to open the minds of a class of inner-city high school students. Plainly put, the premise of HALF NELSON sounds like a movie we’ve all seen too many times before but this is not that movie. HALF NELSON doesn’t soften the hard or smooth over the rough. It opens with Ryan Gosling as Dan Dunne, waking up to his day. He looks exhausted, dirty. As he stumbles around for his pants, he even looks deathly. Mr. Dunne is an 8th grade history teacher and a basketball coach. He is also a drug addict who has cut himself off from as much human intimacy as possible. After coaching a losing game and having an awkward conversation with an ex-girlfriend, his two worlds crash into each other in the girls’ locker room. When he thinks everyone has left, he lights up his crack pipe in a bathroom stall and falls into the high until he hears footsteps. The stall door opens and he stares blankly, curled up on the toilet, at the face of Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of his history students. He insists he’s fine but he isn’t fooling either one of them. She helps him off the floor and into his car. By the time he drops her off, an unlikely friendship has begun, a star performance is being built by Gosling and a brilliantly engaging film is well under way.
Despite his dependence, Mr. Dunne manages to make it to class fairly often. His students, he claims on more than one occasion, are possibly the only thing in his life that keeps him sane. In the classroom, he has purpose. That purpose, he has decided despite the school principal’s protests, is to prepare his students for mental and emotional challenges life will present when they leave high school. Though he is supposed to be teaching the details surrounding the civil rights movement, he prefers to lecture on the philosophy behind how such a change comes about. His approach, albeit unorthodox, is effective. His students are attentive and encouraged to think progressively. Mr. Dunne believes change is brought about when two opposing forces reach a turning point where one force will ultimately overpower the other force. He illustrates this point with a friendly game of arm wrestling. The paradox of a man so intent on inspiring others when he has so little interest in inspiring himself is both fascinatingly twisted and painfully heartbreaking to watch. My heart goes out to Mr. Dunne but all the while, I want to shake him out of his funk.
Keeping with the theme of opposing forces, Mr. Dunne’s relationship with Drey serves as a mirror to the state his life has reached. Drey is a 13-year-old girl who is growing up mostly on her own as her father has left, her mother is always working and her older brother is in jail. She is in need of a solid adult influence in her life and her choices are between Mr. Dunne, a man who has long ago given up on his future and a neighborhood drug dealer who would like to recruit her as part of his crew. Evidently, she has her own opposing forces to deal with. While she is necessarily more mature than the majority of her peers, she is still a teenager and struggles to know her place, especially in relation to Mr. Dunne. There is clearly an admiration as she hangs off every word of his lectures, possibly even a crush. Still, her most mature awareness, and this can be directly attributed to Epps’ stunningly understated performance, is that Mr. Dunne needs her more than she needs him. As he has no friends, he needs an impartial person in his life to remind him about the simple and touching aspects of human interaction. Her beauty grows out of her instinctual impulse to help.
A “half nelson” is a wrestling move that, when applied correctly, prohibits the person in the hold from being able to free him or herself from the hold until they submit to defeat to stop the pain. In the case of Dan Dunne, the drug addiction in his life is the perpetrator of that move and he admitted defeat a long time ago, acknowledging at this point in his life that he only takes the drugs to get by these days compared to his earlier days when he took them to forget. I honestly don’t know which is worse. HALF NELSON is a transfixing character study, thanks in great part to Gosling’s impressive versatility. In many ways, he himself encompasses two opposing forces at the same time but with the hold his drug usage has on his life, it isn’t likely he’ll reach his turning point any time soon, if at all.