half nelson would fall under a genre that has been many times visited by American filmmakers to take a dynamical photograph of inner city problematic neighborhoods. A high school teacher with unorthodox methods and the bittersweet reality of his students, reality surrounded by the shadow of both drug-pushers and drug-users. That essence we find in movies like dangerous minds (1995) and freedom writers (2007). Up to this point nothing innovative, nevertheless, even though half nelson do steals that same essence, it deals with a teacher far from the role model guru.
Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a history high school teacher, basketball coach, and drug addict who after being caught high by Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of her students, starts and awkward friendship with her. This friendship will fight Dunne’s increasing addiction and Drey’s connection to Frank (Anthony Mackie), her imprisoned brother’s drug-pusher colleague.
Ryan Fleck co-wrote and directed this independent movie that got Ryan Gosling an Oscar nomination as best performance by an actor in a leading role. Truth is, both Gosling and Epps are convincing enough to rescue the movie when needed. The movie is quiet, so are their performances, quiet but intense. Gosling excels at drawing Dunne’s faces and change, both when lost in his addiction and when trying to rescue himself in front of his students.
The continuous slight swinging of the camera and the abuse of close shots, together with what it is told, turn half nelson into a harsh slap of reality which optimism or pessimism will depend on us, who are getting the slap. Fleck does not spend time on decoding the past life of the characters, he rather let us infer it from the consequences it has on them, what we actually see, and their current interactions, and this indeed helps the audience feeling empathy for them. Without being brilliant, Fleck’s direction guide the audience through a bittersweet tale that reaches an expected but still meaningful climax, the turning point both Dunne and Dray were looking for.
half nelson is just a little tale about what we are both in the outside, what we show, and in the inside, what we hide, and how those forces fight over the reign of ourselves, just how opposites fight to change the curse of history. By the way, half nelson refers to a wrestling hold, for those wondering where Nelson might be in all this.
For the deadhours of those with half halves.