Thursday 13 September 2018

Movie Review: Half Nelson (2006)

A drama about addiction and morality, Half Nelson features damaged characters and an uncommon classroom dynamic.

At a Brooklyn inner-city school, Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) teaches Middle School history and coaches the girls' basketball team. He is also addicted to cocaine, and is caught using drugs in the school bathroom by Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of his students. Former girlfriend Rachel (Tina Holmes) returns to town but Dan carries on a casual relationship with fellow teacher Isabel (Monique Gabriela Curnen).

Drey's single mother Karen (Karen Chilton) is a police officer frequently occupied by her job, leaving Drey to fall into the clutches of smooth drug dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie). Dan wants to rescue his promising student from an obvious path towards a life of crime, but his addiction means he has limited moral authority to intervene.

Directed by Ryan Fleck who also co-wrote with Anna Boden, Half Nelson (a reference to a wrestling hold) adopts a non-judgemental stance towards its protagonist. This a classroom drama that spends little time in the classroom, and a cautionary tale about drugs that avoids preachiness.

Dan is who he is, a relatively young loner wasting his life away on drugs, but still caring enough to want to save Drey. But  he cannot break away from his own addiction, so how can he compel her to break away from Frank; and furthermore, she may not need saving, thank you very much, given her options.

The premise of a mediocre teacher who is far from an inspiration and just going through the motions until he can disappear into the next drug-induced trip carries a refreshing breath of originality. But Half Nelson does labour to develop its characters. Once the peculiar co-dependent dynamic is established between damaged teacher and precocious student, narrative momentum stalls.

Ryan Gosling helps to maintain interest and is hypnotic as Dan, alternating between mellow, high and intense. Shareeka Epps, about 17 at the time of filming, conveys a resigned maturity well beyond her years. Anthony Mackie generates the requisite drip of despicability.

The film features two climactic scenes, one early, the other late. In the first Drey stumbles upon Dan high on drugs and low on the floor of the school bathroom. Later they meet again under similar but different circumstances: again he is on the floor, but this time rather than surprising each other, they confirm their default trajectory. Whether or not they decide to break away from the hold is up to them.

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