Monday, March 2, 2009

Queue It Up: Half Nelson

[The Class and Half Nelson are stories about struggling teachers. That’s where their similarities end. The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

“One thing doesn’t make a man.” That’s what Dan Dunne, a teacher and basketball coach at a Brooklyn middle school, says one night to Drey, one of his students and players. A short while ago, Dan was ejected from a game for arguing with an official, but that isn’t what he’s referring to. The incident on Dan’s mind happened several weeks ago, when Drey found her teacher in the women’s bathroom getting high – a crack pipe in his hand, a dazed look on his face. At the time Dan and Drey exchanged apologies and pretended not to notice the elephant in the room as it stomped around them. But now, in the silence of the car, the elephant begins to trumpet words unsaid, and Dan can’t ignore it any longer. As he searches for the words to express how he feels, it’s difficult to tell whether Dan is attempting to justify his previous behavior to Drey or to himself. Probably both.

This is Half Nelson, a wonderful film by newcomers Ryan Fleck and Anne Boden that takes a hotshot young white teacher, Ryan Gosling’s Dan, and a tough black student, Shareeka Epps’ Drey, and pits them against one another in a battle of wills. If that overview makes Half Nelson sound like too many other schoolhouse dramas you’ve seen before, rest assured that it isn’t. This isn’t Dangerous Minds or Stand And Deliver. This isn’t the story of a dedicated teacher who turns slackers into scholars. Dan is often motivated, but there’s no evidence to suggest that he’s an outstanding instructor. Straying from the school curriculum, he attempts to teach dialectics to eighth-graders who would struggle just to spell it. In the students’ blank expressions we can see that they don’t quite understand, and yet Dan’s energy piques their curiosity. They can tell he cares, and so they sit quietly and listen.

Drey is among these taciturn souls. She is average. At least, she seems to be. If Drey is especially gifted in class or on the basketball court, the movie never reveals it. Her unlikely friendship with Dan is the product of chance (the bathroom incident) and a broken home. Drey’s father is absent. Her brother is in jail for dealing drugs. Her mom works long hours as an EMT. That’s why Drey is drifting through the school that night when the other girls have gone home. She has nowhere to go, and no one to help her get there. Dan can relate. His addiction renders him equally alone and adrift. Dan and Drey are two people who never knew how much they needed a friend until they got one.

Their relationship takes on the tenets of dialectics. Dan and Drey are opposites, pushing against one another. Dan is supposed to be the leader, the guiding light, order among chaos, but his addiction neuters his ability to be a role model. Drey, who is being looked after by her brother’s drug-dealing friend Frank (Anthony Mackie), is supposed to be the one perilously on the edge, desperately in need of help, and yet she’s as grounded as a rock. Pushing against one another – by what they stand for more so than what they say – their friendship leads to turning points: the night Drey questions Dan at his apartment; the night Dan objects to Frank taking Drey home; and other moments I won’t reveal. Slowly their lives change, not in circles but in spirals. The question is: are Dan and Drey spiraling upward or down?

Half Nelson isn’t something you’d categorize as a “surprising” movie, but you never know where it’s going. It’s positively alive, moving in a direction but without direction. The cinematography, consisting largely of close-ups, features a camera that is often on the move, occasionally losing focus to illustrate Dan’s turbulent mental state. Twice the film employs parallel editing to tremendous effect. First, when Dan has dinner with a fellow teacher (Monique Curnen’s Isabel) while Drey digs into her mother’s cosmetics to explore her femininity. Later, when Dan’s wine-chugging upper-class family demonstrates the ills of substance abuse while Drey, fast becoming Frank’s apprentice, explores the gains.

This film doesn’t glorify substance abuse, nor does it vilify its victims. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Dan meets his ex-girlfriend in a park. Back when they dated, they used drugs together. Now she’s clean and moving on with her life. In his ex, Dan sees someone he loves and used to be close with. He also sees someone he can no longer understand. Like his ex, Dan has tried rehab, but it doesn’t work for him. At least, that’s what he tells himself. When you’re an addict, excuses are everywhere, and Dan is all too eager to buy into his illusions. The only time he struggles to validate his habit is around Drey. Leading her to drugs would be as inconceivable to Dan as giving them up himself.

Such honesty of character is the Half Nelson’s beauty – owed to brilliant performances from Gosling, Epps and Mackie. This picture serves as my introduction to Gosling, and the experience of watching him was akin to an awakening, reminding me of the first time I saw Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential. Gosling is nothing short of mesmerizing. He doesn’t chew the scenery, he is the scenery. Introverted or extroverted, Gosling’s Dan overwhelms us with this presence. It’s a cliché to say that a stunning new actor reminds of a young Marlon Brando, but here it’s true. As with Brando’s Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront, it’s as if I can a hear Dan thinking – as if a narrator were whispering voice-over monologues into my ear.

Epps’ performance doesn’t have the complexity of Gosling’s, but it’s similarly satisfying and unforced. Take note of the ease with which Drey breaks from her trademark scowl into a blinding smile. Then ask yourself: Which of those expressions is “acting”? Epps’ Drey comes off like a real schoolgirl who had a movie constructed around her. In such a fantasy, Frank would be the heavy, unequivocally evil. Instead, Mackie brings so much compassion to his performance that we can never quite vilify him. Frank is the stranger on the street corner looking at you with a gentle smile: we can’t tell whether he’s sinister or a softie. Maybe he can’t either.

Half Nelson’s final scene is a bit ambiguous, and for some it might seem downright incongruous. But I found it to be precise and fulfilling. Once again, Dan and Drey sit in the silence, this time at opposite ends of a couch, looking for the right words to bridge the gap. The message of this scene isn’t that things will change, it’s that things go on. Life keeps spiraling. Dan and Drey have encountered turning points. They have acted as one another’s opposing force. Maybe now they can just be friends.

[“Queue It Up” is a series of sporadic recommendations of often overlooked movies for your Netflix queue.]


Brew said...

Great review. This was my favorite movie of 2006. I loved the performances by the three leads, loved the music of Broken Social Scene that fit perfectly throughout, and I was fascinated with the moral dilemma Gosling faces in trying to protect Dre, but maintain his addiction at the same time.
I also felt a sense of peace with how the movie ended. Nothing was really resolved, but one does get the sense that things will be okay for them - or at least that's what I took from it.


Jason Bellamy said...

Brew: Thanks! As I read through this piece again, one of the things I was disappointed to discover was that I didn't mention the soundtrack. It really does fit perfectly. For days after seeing this film for the first time, I found the rhythms of "Lover's Spit" repeating in my head.

Jason Bellamy said...

Brew: Actually, it's fitting you should write in on this one. We saw L.A. Confidential together all those years back. At the time, everyone was talking about Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger and even Guy Pearce. But we came out of there saying, "Man, who was that Bud White dude!?"

I look back on that film now and the performance doesn't have the same power -- only because now I see Russell Crowe, and so I'm not surprised that he's so compelling.

On that note, I hope Gosling gets some roles worthy of his talent. Every time I watch Half Nelson I see sign after sign that he has the stuff to be something very special.

Daniel said...

Yeah I hoped Gosling really would have taken off after this. Man, what a solid performance.

I actually haven’t thought about this movie in a while, but you picked up on the most powerful aspect for me: the power of individual scenes – the car, the family visit, the park reunion, etc.

Needless to say, I’ve been dying to see Fleck and Boden’s next film, Sugar, for well over a year. It made a big splash at Sundance 2008 and I guess didn’t get picked up for distribution until recently. Still, I don’t think it will reach me until April at the earliest.

Brew said...


Funny you should make a comparison to Crowe. If you've never seen them and you're in need of something to add to the Netflix queue, then consider Romper Stomper with Crowe and The Believer with Gosling. They both play skinheads, and do so rather convincingly.

I echo your sentiment though and I really hope Gosling gets some new roles that showcase his abilities.

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