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HALF NELSON(director/writer: Ryan Fleck; screenwriter: Anna Boden; cinematographer: Andrij Parekh; editor: Anna Boden; music: Broken Social Scene; cast: Ryan Gosling (Dan Dunne), Shareeka Epps (Drey), Anthony Mackie (Frank), Monique Gabriela Curnen (Isabel), Karen Chilton (Karen), Tina Holmes (Rachel); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Jamie Patricof/Alex Orlovsky/Lynette Howell/Anna Boden/Rosanne Korenberg; ThinkFilm; 2006)
“… a compelling dramatic film that builds its case around facing painful truths.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Half Nelson is the kind of unabashed liberal urban drama that wrestles with itself to say what it means to say, and says it even if it bloodies itself and its political point of view over a number of moral dilemmas. It received the nomination for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. Half Nelson goes against the trend in these dark Bush times by being openly radical and anti-Bush in its politics, when most mainstream films eschew politics as if it were the plague. It’s about an idealistic and dedicated white inner-city junior high school social studies teacher and basketball coach, Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), who is the kind of effective teacher the black community is looking for but also is a longtime addicted crackhead who can’t get his personal life together. Director Ryan Fleck is cowriter with his life partner Anna Boden and they present a film that responds to the overriding urban social problems in a nuanced way that is not all good or bad, but most probably reflects more how many individuals actually are who deal with these problems on a daily basis; that is, they are rarely all good or all bad but usually a combo of both.

Though Dunne is wasted from his drug habit, lives alone with his cat and many leftist books in a dumpy Brooklyn apartment not far from where he teaches (the film was shot in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn), and has never reached his potential to be a writer, he’s nevertheless able to get himself together to teach his class. He bonds with one of his more quiet and serious students, a thirteen-year-old African-American girl named Drey (Shareeka Epps). The heart of the film is about this unlikely and precarious relationship that develops into a trusting friendship, that could be either helpful or dangerous to both parties.

The history lessons all center around the civil rights struggle and of Dunne trying to inspire his mostly lethargic students to protest injustices, whose free-style teaching format doesn’t please the female African-American principal who wants him to stick to the required lessons plans about civil rights. From time to time there are newsreel clips of important events such as the Supreme Court decision in 1954 striking down segregation, the prison riot in Attica and the murder of the first openly gay American elected figure Harvey Milk of San Francisco. These historical events lead to robust class discussions among those few students paying attention.

After coaching the girls’s basketball team, Dunne meets his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Tina Holmes) but feels too tense and drained to join her for coffee. Instead the burnt out teach retreats to the girls’ empty locker room and does crack, where Drey enters and spots his crack pipe in a stall. Since her errant father failed to give her a ride home after the game, Dunne plays the role of the stand-in father and drives her home. They become friends and she never reveals his secret, but she also develops a bond with her older brother’s smooth friend Frank (Anthony Mackie)–the local drug dealer, who’s also concerned with looking out for Drey while her brother is in prison. The two men compete for the trust of the child, and each though flawed has something to contribute to her welfare but not without leaving us in a moral quandary about how a drug dealer and an addict can be role models and act responsibly to a child under their charge.

There are danger signs facing the motivated student from such things as world events: where Bush’s War is draining the money for social and education programs. The war was based on lies over WMDs and Iraq’s link to Osama bin Laden–which an overwhelming majority of the public still believes is true after it’s already proven false. The point being the public must have gotten a bad education to be fooled so badly by the Bushies; other dangers are from the tough crime-ridden ghetto neighborhood where their school is located, from the troubled adult father figures in Drey’s life, and all the usual complexities of a female growing up in a turbulent patriarchal America with a mom who is not home because she works double-shifts and an irresponsible father who is almost never home. The film’s optimism is seen through Drey’s strength and resiliency to grow up questioning things and learning to think for herself, even though she’s not out of the danger zone she inhabits but, at least, there’s a spark of life in her that leaves us with a confidence that she might be one of the few who can survive living in such a dangerous environment at such a dangerous time. Whether the self-loathing and in denial about the seriousness of his dope problems young teacher can survive is another story, but Dunne receives strength from helping at least one child have a chance at a better life–which might be enough sustenance for him to also be a survivor.

There are three outstanding performances that bring the film to its high water mark: Gosling in an Oscar-caliber performance as the complex and believable teacher, whose Vietnam War protesting do-gooder liberal parents raised him the best they knew how; Epps’s matching brilliant and sensitive performances that goes to the bone of a child’s growing pains; and, Mackie’s lively performance as the shrewd but menacing street person who knows how to survive in the mean streets.

It’s a compelling dramatic film that builds its case around facing painful truths and is not like your typical formulaic Hollywood film of coming up with a stupendous victory at the end to make its case.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”