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Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, 2006)


    In Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling plays an idealistic, privileged young teacher who struggles to help his inner-city students despite a debilitating crack habit. The premise is shaky on paper, and it hardly plays better on the screen. Gosling tries his damndest to humanize this screenwriter’s conception, but errs by relying too heavily on his undeniable charisma to get him through his scenes. Even after attempting rape, he courts audience sympathy through self-deprecating humor. Plenty of films feature charismatic junkies without devaluing themselves, but next to his tattered idealism, Dan’s magnetism is his defining characteristic. The script leaves much of his past clouded in mystery, never making clear how his good-intentions curdled into his current situation. More problematic still is Drey (Shareeka Epps), the lone student who shares the secret of his addiction. The film seems to contend that because she’s grown up in a poor neighborhood, she’s acquired a preternatural understanding of the complicated problems that afflict adults. Certainly in the crucial scene where she opts to help her binging teacher she demonstrates uncanny wisdom and calm. This is problematic, because the central crisis of the plot demands that she be genuinely conflicted between the influences of two problematic father figures: Dan and a drug dealer (Anthony Mackie, turning in the best performance of the cast) who is a friend of her family.


    Half Nelson’s script has a series of exceptionally similar, but increasingly incoherent, scenes in which Dan lectures his students on dialectics. Due to the insertion this bludgeoning thematic material, one is expected to accept the either/or moral compass that Half Nelson offers up. Dan’s interactions with Drey never reveal much about either character, but the film has a curious habit of suggesting through Drey’s doe eyes that Dan is a redeemable chap in spite of his incredibly irresponsible behavior. Their relationship is so curiously unexamined on racial, socioeconomic or sexual grounds that the film almost seems to suggest that none of those differences matter. This attitude would have one believe that the film is actually endorsing the liberal optimism that took Dan down a dead end street, despite an overly ambitious third act assault on Dan’s ex-hippie parents and a handful of references to the current political climate. That being said, whatever confusion it holds at its core, Half Nelson is not a total wash. Its virtues simply lie in Fleck’s tendency to intersect the frame to create dramatic tension and in Boden’s pulsing editorial rhythms (her juxtapositions, though, like the one that cuts between a sex scene and a montage of Drey playing dress-up, often make no sense), instead of in its politics and characterizations.




Jeremy Heilman