Half Nelson (2006): Best Film at Sundance Fest, with Ryan Gosling in Towering Performance

Drug addiction featured in many Sundance entries this year, including Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson,” the best movie in competition, far superior in writing, acting and directing to the sentimental crowd-pleaser “Quinceanera,” which inexplicably won the Jury Award.

“Half Nelson” boasts an astonishing, multi-nuanced performance from Ryan Gosling, who five years ago made a strong impression in the Sundance-premiered “The Believer,” a film that never got theatrical distribution in the U.S. due to its explosive subject matter, though it was later shown on cable.

Rough at the edges, if also a bit soft at the center, “Half Nelson” is not perfect but is certainly worth seeing. As co-written by Fleck and Anna Boden, the film is remarkable for avoiding the pitfalls of its potentially schematic structure and dramatic conflicts.

The film is not least significant for offering a positive image of a teacher, who loves his job. In most American pictures, teachers are presented as “comic” figures ridiculed and despised by their students.

Moreover, “Half Nelson” is not another message movie about a charismatic, dedicated teacher working in the black ghetto of the kind that Glenn Ford played in “Blackboard Jungle” in the 1950s, and Michelle Pfeifer played in “Dangerous Minds,” a typical Bruckheimer production, several years ago. When was the last time you saw on screen a high-school teacher talking about Hegel and Dialectics

Dan Dunne (Gosling) is a young idealistic inner-city junior high school teacher, who refuses to be defeated by the harsh surrounding reality. Day after day, in his shabby Brooklyn classroom, he manages to find the energy to inspire his 13 year-olds to examine everything from civil rights to the Civil War, with enthusiasm and commitment. The movie is punctuated with black-and white footage of these momentous historical events.

Rejecting the standard curriculum in favor of a gutsier, fresher, more relevant, and more personal approach, Dan teaches his students how change works, on both a historical and personal scale, and how to think effectively for themselves. Dans fascination with Hegels theories of dialectics, a topic he discusses repeatedly in his classroom, is reportedly inspired by Flecks father, a San Francisco traffic engineer, who has created a website, www.dialectics4kids.com. Many of the film’s ideas are lifted straight from this site.

Though Dan is brilliant, dynamic, and in complete control in the classroom, outside school, he’s on the edge of consciousness. His disillusionment has led to a serious drug habit. In the first, impressive scene, Dan is seen sitting on the floor in his underwear, high from inhaling his daily drugs.

The film depicts how Dan juggles his hangovers and his homework, keeping his two lives separated–until one of his brightest and troubled female students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), catches him getting high in the school’s restroom. From this awkward beginning, Dan and Drey stumble into an unexpected relationship between teacher and student, one that blossoms into genuine friendship. Despite differences in age, race, social class, and position, both Dan and Drey are at important crossroads, with their lives about to change dramatically.

Drey (short for Audrey) is remarkable young girl who inspires Dan to care about her and, ultimately, to care about himself. She is a normal kid with a great mix of innocence and tough street smarts that help her survive. Resilient, she aspires for a better life than that offered by Frank (Anthony Mackie), a slick and successful drug-dealer who takes interest in Drey due to his responsibility for landing her older brother in prison.

Frank, played with authority and charm by Mackie, represents the polar opposite of Dan: He possesses Dan’s smart lucidity, but lacks his idealism. The path he offers Drey, a shortcut to money and independence, albeit as a drug-runner, has undeniable appeal.

You could day that “Half Nelson” is a message picture in the positive sense of this term, offering an honest, understated drama about a disillusioned and self-destructive teacher whose relationship with a precocious student inspires him to reclaim his own wayward life.

There are no easy choices or answers for any of the trio of characters, a testimony to Flecks ability to infuse his work with complex veracity and moral shading. Fully realized, the characters are edged with complete histories and credible situations, which gives the actors plenty to work with.

Gosling is riveting as the teacher handicapped by the conflicting forces of idealism and cynicism. Shareeka Epps, a revelation among todays teenage actresses, is equally compelling as his pragmatic, resilient, and hopeful student.

“Half Nelson” might seem like, but is not, a movie about addiction, rehab, and recovery. Instead, the film explores political and philosophical themes, such as the impotence of idealism and the failure of the liberal dream. And it ends on a hopeful note, which the story earns, indicating how a single man can succeed where social movements fail.

Fleck succeeds in transporting us to the edgy urban landscape, the setting for a provocative and emotionally charged story about impossible friendship and the possibility of redemption in an otherwise cruel and impossible world. As director, he sidesteps the tendency to portray ghetto life with flashy, movie-inspired techniques. Instead, he has boldly made a more realistic film that captures in detail black working-class existence in a rundown Brooklyn neighborhood. Cinematographer Andru Parekh executes Flecks vision by shooting in a probing yet intimate style, showing the unique Brooklyn landscape with its low buildings and open spaces.

A word about the title: In professional wrestling, Half-Nelson is an immobilizing hold that’s difficult, if not impossible, to escape. The filmmakers use this expression as a metaphor for being stuck in an uncomfortable position, which describes Dan’s place at the beginning of the saga.

Source material

“Half Neslon” began as a short story, made into a short film on digital video, with friends and local kids serving as cast and crew members. It was titled “Gowanus, Brooklyn,” after the industrial Brooklyn neighborhood where the filmmakers were living at the time. The short won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Festival.

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