Half Nelson is a 2006 movie directed by Ryan Fleck, who also co-wrote the movie with Anna Boden. It stars Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps and Anthony Mackie.
Dan Dunne (played by Ryan Gosling) is a gifted, brilliant young teacher working in a deprived school. He provides a source of inspiration to his pupils as he helps them to achieve their potential both in the classroom and out on the basketball court. However, Dan is also a crack addict.
After a basketball game, he goes to the toilets. Crouching down in a cubicle and lighting up a pipe, he closes his eyes and shuts out the world with each successive inhalation.
Half Nelson is a brave film which has the courage to turn away from a Hollywood friendly plotline showing deprivation overcome with education. Instead, it twists away into much darker territory, into a world where there are definitely no simplistic happy ever afters.
13-year-old Drey (played with cool assuredness by Shareeka Epps) has not been collected by her father and is left alone at school. She comes back into the toilets, calls out uncertainly, 'Who's there?' and the door opens to reveal not her teacher but a junkie crouched in the toilets, sweating and shaking, unable to speak, just staring mutely up at Drey.
Director Ryan Fleck keeps these dramatic moments jerky and intimate with minimal dialogue. With several unforgettable close shots of Dan looking up at Drey, his eyes articulating what mere words cannot, Ryan Gosling vividly portrays the claustrophobic inner turmoil taking place inside Dan's head.
Half Nelson is a special film which examines how high ideals can crumble under the weight of reality. Dan's parents were both teachers. As his mother says as she knocks back another glass of red wine:
We wanted to change the world – but what did we know?
Dan spends much of his time out of school barely conscious. He deals with the gap between his ideals and reality by self medicating with illegal drugs. He tries to explain what has gone wrong with politics and with the world in general to two disinterested girls in a nightclub, seeking justification and absolution for his actions as he lines up another line of cocaine.
I do it now to get by, but I can handle it. You know what I mean? I tried the rehab thing. I tried it. But it didn't work, Didn't work. It works for some people. My ex-girlfriend is getting married. That's how it works for some people. Right? Didn't work for me. The kids keep me focused.
Dan finds out Drey's brother is in prison for dealing and realises she is becoming friendly with Frank, the main dealer (portrayed with an elegant coolness by Anthony Mackie). Despite acknowledging his own unsuitability to be the one giving the lecture on morals where drugs are concerned, Dan wants to protect Drey from Frank.
This leads to a tense interchange between Dan and Frank as they argue over Drey and her future. Frank is certainly not the stereotypical drug dealer usually seen in movies. He is friendly and articulate, and has been providing for Drey and her family, but in the only way he knows how; by selling drugs. It is not clear what the ultimate payment will be. This is a morally ambiguous world where there are no clear 'good guys' and 'bad guys'.
Half Nelson is both brilliantly acted and directed with Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps and Anthony Mackie all delivering finely nuanced performances. Much of the emotion is left unsaid, expressed instead through shaking close shots of Dan's haunted sad eyes.
This is a brave film which does not attempt to find easy answers as it examines the tensions between high ideals and crushing reality. Dan does at one point say:
Second chances are rare, man. You ought to take more advantage of them.
Still, it is left unclear whether he will follow his own teaching.
Half Nelson was originally made in 2004 as the short film Gowanus, Brooklyn, which won an award at the Sundance Film Festival. Shareeka Epps and Karen Chilton reprise their roles as Drey and Drey's mother. Matt Kerr, who plays the substitute teacher Mr Light in this film, played Mr Dunne in the original short.
What is a 'Half-Nelson'?
The film is named after a wrestling term. A half-nelson is when a wrestler who is behind his opponent, passes one arm under the corresponding arm of his opponent and locks the hand on the back of his opponent's neck. A struggle between two opposing forces ensues. This goes straight to the heart of the film; the subject mentioned first by Dan in the classroom as he writes 'Dialectics1' on the blackboard, and developed further in the various interactions and struggles which take place throughout the film.
I'm part of the machine. But if I'm part of it, then so are you. You are, too. We all are. And this is the thing, remember? Everything is made with opposing force. We may be opposed to the machine, but we're still very much a part of it, right? I work for the government, the school, but I'm also very much opposed to a lot of its policies. You guys hate coming to school, right? Holler back if you heard me! You hate it, but you come anyway. Sometimes. Exactly.
Half Nelson has been nominated for many awards. A small selection of these are listed below.
Academy Awards 2007: Ryan Gosling was nominated for Best Actor.
Stockholm Film Festival 2006: Ryan Gosling won Best Actor.
Sundance Film Festival 2006: Ryan Fleck Nominated Grand Jury Prize.
Gotham Awards 2006: Ryan Fleck won both the Best Film and Breakthrough Director awards, and Shareeka Epps won the Breakthrough Award (tied with Rinko Kikuchi for Babel).