Half Nelson (2006)

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Review #251 of 365
Film: Half Nelson (2006) [R] 106 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $12.00
Where Viewed: Landmark Esquire Theatre, Denver, CO
When 1st Seen: 19 September 2006
Time: 4:45 p.m.

Directed by: Ryan Fleck
Written by: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Based on Ryan Fleck's short film Gowanus, Brooklyn
Featured Cast (Where I Remember Him/Her From):
Ryan Gosling (The Notebook) • Shareeka Epps (Gowanus, Brooklyn) • Anthony Mackie (Crossover) • Karen Chilton (Gowanus, Brooklyn)

Soundtrack: Download now from Broken Social Scene - Half Nelsonor - order the CD soundtrack below

Click for 'Review Lite' [a 150-word or less review of this film]
The stunning performance by Shareeka Epps and the audience reaction to Ryan Fleck's short film, Gowanus, Brooklyn compelled him and writing partner Anna Boden to take the story to the next level and secure funding for a feature film. Choosing his roles wisely, Ryan Gosling accepted the part as the drug-addicted, public middle school, history teacher Dan Dunne who embodies that which he teaches—that life works only because of the opposition of good and bad within all things, the pushing and pulling, the contrary forces—and becomes gripped in a half nelson when one of his students and basketball team players, Drey (Shareeka Epps), uncovers his drug habit. The film starts with a jolt, as we see Dan in his classroom on what seems like the first day of school but must be more like a few weeks into the new year, and he is challenging his students to tell him what 'history' means. After this class, the film jumps into his after school girls basketball practice and then on to his evening social life of drinking, drugs, and women. We are whisked again quickly through a series of scenes of Dan buying drugs, getting in trouble with the principal for being too far off the approved curriculum, and a basketball game attended by a previous long-time girlfriend whom after the game he ditches to go into the locker room and get high. What he never expects, is that one of his players, Drey, will find him wigging out on the floor of the toilet stall. Her father has forgotten to come pick her up. So, after he chills, he takes her home, and thus begins a very tenuous relationship where Dunne knows if she reports him to anyone he'll lose his job. He worries about this and tries to establish a relationship of trust with Drey without ever asking her to cover for him. He just hopes she won't, but he's professional enough not to but her in the middle of his problem and his job. He knows how much she has to go through herself being raised in a broken home by a mother who has to work all the time, with a brother who's in prison for drug trafficking, and a neighborhood where kids can turn on a dime from good kid to drug king pin. She has no interest in turning him in. In fact, perhaps, she begins to see herself turning him around. Things get a bit more complicated when Drey's brother's supplier, Frank (Anthony Mackie), begins to use Drey as his delivery girl including one night when she delivers to Mr. Dunne who is at a hotel party. Drey and Dunne form an unlikely pair as each becomes stuck on saving the other from a life each knows could cause the other to end up dead. There is a bond. How deep the bond actually is serves as another part of the internal tension of the film. There's one scene at the junior high dance where he dances with her that gets a little dicey as to how close they have become. Nothing really goes over the line in some ways, though their emotional connection, or at least Drey's emotional connection to Dunne, is probably not in either's best interest given their age difference and their mutual vulnerability. Again, though, there is constant tension in the story between crossing the line and being able to stay safely on one side. Teachers in the USA, especially in the inner cities, need to be able to provide emotional support to kids that may not be getting enough of it without concerns that these relationships will get out of line. One last example of the duality, the internal conflict, the opposing forces about which Dunne constantly wrestles and teaches comes when Dunne meets up with Frank and begs him to stop hanging around with Drey regardless of how close he may have been to her older brother. Frank has strong feelings right back as to not wanting his best friend's younger sister to be hanging around with a drug addict. At one point, Frank even tells Drey, "You cannot be his friend, he's a base head--they don't have any friends."

"…Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling give great performances…the story of Half Nelson is only half done…"
While it is accurate to say that Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling give great performances, the story has some significant problems. Logically, the transition from short film to feature-length film presents its own issues. First, there has to be more to the story, there has to be significantly more going on. When the 'more' was added, it seems to focus way, way too much on Dunne's recreational activities. There are far too few classroom scenes to establish how good a teacher Dan really is. Is he as good and life-changing a teacher as one father who runs into him in a bar indicates by glowing that his daughter is now a history major at Georgetown as inspired by him? How could we know for sure? We see more of him in his car skulking about and snorting drugs than we do in the classroom or on the basketball court. Without this, it is much more difficult to care the day he fails to show up for class and is replaced by a substitute. Meanwhile, he seems to have only one idea in his entire teaching arsenal. The idea that internal conflict in duality of all things makes life more complicated than the people who want to categorize all things into either good or bad, black or white, pro or con admit it to be is a very compelling one. It is more of an Eastern Civilization / systems approach to the world, to life, to human nature vs. a didactic, mechanistic, Western Civilization approach. I liked this too, and I believe it. However, there must be more to his curriculum / classroom than this one point over and over again. Clearly, he is fixated on it. Clearly he lives it. Judge him not for his wild and illegal life outside of school, for once, when back in the classroom, he flips to the teacher side of himself and works to empower kids to see their true place in the universe. One thing he cannot see right away is the impact that his recreational life is having on his life in school. The one side of the duality is blending too far with the other too often. He is becoming irresponsible at his job, and when the job is teaching the young minds of the future generations, such is unacceptable and totally irresponsible. As much as he might like to try to convince himself that it's just fine because all things have a good and a bad side, this is an area where he's just wrong. The complete lack of real involvement in Drey's live by her mother Karen (Karen Chilton) is a problem too. She is an EMT. Shouldn't she be able to keep better track of her daughter and son? Does she really care? Then there's Frank. He too has this same duality as the other influence in Drey's life. He sells drugs for a living, but he's not a drug addict. He tells himself it's okay to sell because he needs to make a living, but he has a very low opinion of drug users. At one point, Drey asks Mr. Dunne if he things she can turn out like her brother. With Anthony working on her, the likelihood is high. So, Drey herself has the internal struggle between the life her brother lived and the ability to take care of herself financially now, or listening to the teachings of her teacher and going on to college. She wants to be a good kid, but she is easily persuaded and influenced by the drug dealer's lifestyle.

In a lot of ways, the story of Half Nelson is only half done, and I don't just mean that the ending leaves you hanging wondering what becomes of these three dual souls inexorably linked. I mean because we never get to see what motivates their halves. Why is Dunne a drug addict? Did he pick it up in college? Did he do it to become rebellious? He claims he went through rehab but that it didn't work. Ok, so what now? Does he plan to be a drug addict his entire life? A brief sequence of his visit to his parents' home only gives a few clues as to why he is the way he is. As for Frank, how did he get into this business and does he plan to get out? Drey is the biggest question mark. What does she see in either Frank or Dunne that draws her to want to work with or help each? Are her feelings deeper than they should be? Does she really see what's going on in her life? Is this Nelson half full or half empty? Either way, it's missing half of something.

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Half Nelson (2006) Review-lite [150-word cap]
Stunning performance by Shareeka Epps and the audience reaction to Ryan Fleck's short film, Gowanus, Brooklyn compelled him and writing partner Anna Boden to take the story to the next level and secure funding for a feature film called Half Nelson. Ryan Gosling portrays the drug-addicted, public middle school, history teacher Dan Dunne who embodies that which he teaches—a dual life of opposites—and Shareeka Epps plays his student, Drey, who uncovers his habit and struggles with trying to help and understand him. Unfortunately, this is a story that turns out to be only half done. Fleck and Boden never reveal what motivates the characters to lead the lives they live, leaving a sense that things are incomplete. Why is Dunne a drug addict? What does Drey see in Dunne that makes her want to rescue him? Is this Nelson half full or half empty? Either way, it's missing something.

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