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Half Nelson

USA 2006
Directed by
Ryan Fleck
106 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrea Buck
4 stars

Half Nelson

Synopsis: Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic, brilliant, but severely flawed history teacher in a shabby inner-city New York school. He spends his time outside the classroom getting high and struggling with a mounting drug habit, but pretty much managing to keep his two lives separate. At school he is a passionate and charismatic with the power to transform the lives of his young students. His personal demons of disillusionment and self destructiveness are kept well hidden until one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps) catches him totally wasted, high on crack in the toilets after school. A surprising and non-sexually intimate friendship is formed between the two, who, despite their worlds of difference and age are both equally vulnerable and both equally able to learn from and be afraid for each other.

The title of this film is confounding unless you happen to know that a “half-nelson” in professional wrestling is an immobilizing hold that is difficult, if not impossible, to escape from. Knowing that, the title is most befitting. Half Nelson is far from just a movie about the grip of addiction. With honest, understated drama it explores universal political and philosophical themes. It is a film that is intimate but carries ideas for the world.

Most impressive is that this film never falls into stereotyping and most refreshingly, especially for an American film, is that it delivers its dramatic consequences at an entirely internal level sometimes with small, sometimes huge effects for the characters. So many times the drama is built to make us worry about what is about to happen – will Dan be fired? Will Dan be charged with inappropriate conduct with a minor? Will a fight break out with Frank (Anthony Mackie), a drug-dealing hood who Dan confronts in his attempted protection of Drey? In this instance, for example, instead of the expected violence, Frank invites “The Teach” in for a drink, and although Dan is driven to protect Drew from entering this dangerous drug-dealing world, he succumbs to buying drugs for himself.

Half Nelson is filled with complexity and moral shading delivered with sensitivity and subtlety. It is not always comfortable to watch. Rather, it is at times frustrating. If one has not known the half-nelson of addiction oneself, the actions of an addict do appear narcissistic and I expect some will find that their response to Dan’s behaviour.

Ryan Gosling is brilliant, playing Dan with a quiet intensity and a thrilling potential to erupt at any minute. His performance has earned him a nomination for this year’s Oscars, an exciting achievement, given that Half Nelson is a low-budget film without the scope for a massive Oscar campaign. Shareeka Epps is wonderful. She plays Drey with remarkable maturity for a fledgling actress in a performance that is subtle, naïve, sensitive and complex at the same time.

Half Nelson is a rarity as high-profile independent film that fearlessly tackles issues of modern morality and restores hope that mainstream American film-makers will recognise the value in a work that is honest, uncomfortable and is deserving of reflection.




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