Half Nelson: Wasted Lives

SECRETS DON’T LET GO.

In 2004, writer-director Ryan Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden made a 19-minute short subject called Gowanus, Brooklyn. I’m glad to see the duo coming up with enough money to flesh it out into a feature film. That happened two years later; the movie competed at the Sundance Film Festival, was released to theaters later that year, getting great reviews, and was subsequently rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. After watching a few so-called art movies last week that were anything but impressive, I have to say that Half Nelson came as a relief. 

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a history teacher working in a public high school in Brooklyn. He doesn’t care much for the plan set out for him and prefers to teach the kids in unorthodox ways, particularly when it comes to civil rights and the issue of conflicts that runs through history. Mankind has always struggled with opposites and Dan is trying to make his teenagers think about that. The kids like him, but Dan is a troubled man. He’s been addicted to crack for a long time, ridiculously arguing that he can handle it. Aside from being a history teacher, Dan is also a basketball coach. One night, after a game, he decides to lock himself up in a locker room stall and smoke a crack pipe.

Unfortunately, one of his students, 13-year-old Drey (Shareeka Epps), catches him in the act. Nothing negative really comes out of it; both of them continue their lives, but they do strike up what might be labeled a friendship. As Dan is revisited by an old girlfriend who has gone through rehab, he’s increasingly concerned about the people in Drey’s life. 

Pretending to be an adult
It is primarily Gosling who dominates the film. He’s so good as the teacher, who always looks as if he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, who’s always struggling with the inconsistencies of his life. Dan Dunne is basically a 25-year-old child pretending to be an adult; in the classroom he’s preaching about the evils of recent history and wants to be viewed as a role model… but his life outside of school shows no signs of maturity or insight. The interesting thing is that Gosling’s performance lets us understand that Dan knows the irony of his life but is incapable of doing anything about it.

Young Epp is also worth a look. Her teenager is stuck. There are no adult role models to look up to in her life, not even the teacher she makes friends with; her mother tries her best, but she’s so disillusioned she’s unable to tell her child that she’s really able to do anything as long as she works hard in school. The contradictions are strong; Dan teaches about changes, although he could never change, and about opposites, of which there are a few in his life. Dan has every chance afforded him to have a successful life but he chooses not to have one; his new-found friend Drey is intelligent and gives the impression of one day following in Condoleezza Rice’s footsteps or something to that effect, but her surroundings are likely to prevent her from ever succeeding.

It’s all a depressing, tremendous waste and the filmmakers’ skilful portrayal of it is a key source to why this film is a gripping experience. 

Fleck never compromises with his realistic vision, never steps into predictable traps. Thanks to his handheld camera he maintains a sense of stress, perhaps best reflecting Dan’s perspective… but co-writer and editor Boden also avoids tiresome fast cuts that would have the audience losing focus of the characters in key sequences.

Half Nelson 2006-U.S. 106 min. Color. Produced by Anna Boden, Lynette Howell, Rosanne Korenberg, Alex Orlovsky, Jamie Patricof. Directed by Ryan Fleck. Screenplay: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden. Editing: Anna Boden. Cast: Ryan Gosling (Dan Dunne), Shareeka Epps (Drey), Anthony Mackie (Frank), Deborah Rush, Jay O. Sanders, Tina Holmes.

Trivia: Epps and Karen Chilton repeated their roles from the short film.

Last word: “About four years ago I was feeling very frustrated with the state of the world. 9/11 had happened, and I knew Bush was just going to fuck it all up. And then we went after Iraq, and I was just like, ‘Fuck!’ I was trying to get active politically but feeling totally powerless. That was where the seed of the character came from, this guy thinking he’s grown up, feeling like he needs to make a difference in the world somehow, and the more he tries, the more he kind of fucks things up. It comes from that emotion, that feeling of total frustration and powerlessness.” (Fleck, Filmmaker Magazine)

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