Half Nelson: Ryan Gosling Shines as Inner City Highschool Teacher

An ambitious film, “Half a Nelson,” a highlight of this year’s Sundance Film Fest, fearlessly tackles history, politics, philosophy, psychology, and issues of modern morality with the passion and fierce intelligence born of youth.

It’s a film that unabashedly, though without sentimentality, restores hope in humanity to its characters and to its audience.

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a young idealistic inner-city junior high school teacher, who refuses to be defeated by the 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. Rejecting the standard curriculum in favor of an edgier approach, Dan teaches his students how change works, on both a historical and personal scale, and how to think effectively and personally for themselves.

Though Dan is brilliant, dynamic, and in control in the classroom, outside school, he’s on the edge of consciousness. His disillusionment has led to a serious drug habit. He juggles his hangovers and his homework, keeping his lives separated, until one of his troubled female students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), catches him getting high after school. From this awkward beginning, Dan and Drey stumble into an unexpected friendship. Despite the differences in age and social class, they are both at an important crossroad. Their lives will change dramatically, depending on which choices they make.

Fueled by riveting performances, Half Nelson” is 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. The film stars Ryan Gosling as a young man handicapped by the conflicting forces of idealism and cynicism, and Shareeka Epps, a revelation among todays teenage actresses, as his pragmatic and hopeful, student.

Director/writer Ryan Fleck and producer/co-writer Anna Boden succeed in transporting us to the edgy urban landscape that’s the setting for this provocative and emotionally-charged story about friendship and the possibility of redemption in a cruel world. They show that it is possible, as Dan Dunne finds when he establishes a bond with his student, to change the world, slowly, one life at a time.

The Title

In professional wrestling, a Half-Nelson is an immobilizing hold that’s difficult, if not impossible, to escape. Fleck and Boden see the title as a metaphor for being stuck in an uncomfortable position, which is exactly where they place their protagonist Dan Dunne at the beginning of the film. A charismatic history teacher, Dan has the power to transform the lives of his teenage students. Although his school is in a desolate part of Brooklyn, where everything is drab and depressed, Dunnes classroom is an oasis of enlightenment. When he teaches, he is animated, smart, strong, and completely in control. But Dunnes personal life borders on the tragic. The suffocating half-nelson he cannot escape is his drug addiction. The sirens call of the crack pipe helps him to forget the terrible truths that haunt him every day: that ideals die, that life presents more dead ends than open doors, and that recovery is always beckoning but not quite attainable.

Yet, “Half Nelson” is not a story about addiction. The film explores universal political and philosophical themes, such as the impotence of idealism and the failure of the liberal dream. The characters discover how individuals mayand can–succeed where movements fail.

Origins of the story

After attending New York University Film School, Fleck and Boden were eager to begin their first feature project. They wrote “Half Nelson” in early 2002. With little money or resources to produce the feature, they decided to refashion their story into a short script and shoot it on digital video with friends and local kids as their cast and crew. “Half Nelson” was retitled “Gownaus, Brooklyn,” after the industrial Brooklyn neighborhood they were living in at the time. The short was an impressive debut, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

Lead Ryan Gosling

Encouraged to move ahead with their feature film, Fleck and Boden gave the script to Ryan Gosling, star of The Believer and The Notebook, hoping he would play Dan Dunne, the idealistic and brilliant but severely flawed inner-city junior high school teacher. Fleck knew that Gosling was a perfect fit for Dunne, despite being considerably younger than the role had initially been written. He had a quiet intensity with the potential to erupt at any moment, which was thrilling to watch, Fleck recalls. He and Boden met with Gosling. When they discussed the project, it became clear that Gosling, who gravitates toward challenging roles, felt an immediate connection to the material (He just got it, remembered Boden).

Gosling took his role so seriously that he was determined to build his performance from the ground up. He moved to New York over a month before shooting was scheduled to start and immersed himself in the life of his character. Gosling lived in a small, sublet apartment in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn and spent time in a junior high school classroom, shadowing 8th grade teacher David Easton to prepare for his role. Easton taught with the kind of passion that Gosling hoped to capture in his character and observing his class was even more useful than Gosling had hoped.

Goslings meeting with Easton was serendipitous for another reason as well. Ryan told me to meet him at the school, said Boden. So, when I got to the classroom, I saw Ryan coming to get the door for me. Only, Ryan was sitting down in the back of the classroom. Turns out, Mr. Easton was Ryans doppleganger. Looking for someone to play the role of Dan Dunnes brother, Fleck and Boden happily cast Easton in the part.

Teaching Hegel’s Dialectics

Dunnes fascination with Hegels theories of dialectics, a topic he discusses in classroom, was inspired by Flecks father, a traffic engineer in San Francisco. My dad created a website, www.dialectics4kids.com, which is pretty amazing, explains Fleck. A lot of the stuff from the movie was lifted straight from his site. Curious about dialectics, Gosling spent several hours on the phone discussing philosophy with the directors father. After that conversation, Ryan was kind of blown away. He said they only scratched the surface and wanted to learn more, Fleck says. The great thing about Ryan is that hes always digging deeper. He has an immense desire to learn and grow.

Shareeka Epps

The film’s other pivotal role is Drey (short for Audrey), the remarkable young girl who inspires Goslings character to care about her and, ultimately, to care about himself. Drey had to be wise and nave at the same time, a challenge for a fledgling actress. When casting their feature, the filmmakers returned to Shareeka Epps, who played the part in “Gowanus, Brooklyn.”

While making the short, Fleck and Boden had visited local performing arts schools and urged students to attend their open auditions. One girl stood out among the rest, Boden remembers. She had wonderful presence and didnt behave like other actor kids. She was just a normal kid with a great mix of innocence and tough street smarts.

The filmmakers rehearsed extensively with Gosling and Epps. More than reading from the script, I thought the important thing was to just get to know each other. We spent a lot of time hanging out, going to fun places like the New York Hall of Science, and letting Ryan and Shareeka develop a relationship on their own, Fleck recalls.

The chemistry between Gosling and Epps is what makes their unusual friendship credible. Gosling fills the screen with a rousing intelligence, wit, and urgency, while Epps manages to establish her presence with a striking intensity and maturity beyond her years. Only her Toostie Roll, which she carries like a security blanket, reminds us that she is still a child. But she will not be a child much longer. It is time for Drey to make some important decisions about the direction her life will take.

Anthony Mackie

The important third character in the film is Frank, a slick and successful drug dealer who takes an interest in Drey because he was responsible for landing her older brother in prison. Frank, played with great authority and charm by Anthony Mackie, is the polar opposite of Dan Dunne. He has all of the lucidity that Goslings conflicted character does not have, but none of the ideals. The path he offers Drey a shortcut to money and independence, albeit as a drug-runner has undeniable appeal.

No Easy Choices

The fact that there are no easy choices or answers for any of the characters is a testimony to director Flecks ability to infuse his work with veracity, complexity and moral shading. Characters are fully-realized, complete with histories, and their situations have the authenticity of life.

Film’s Look

Fleck sidesteps the typical film school graduates tendency to portray life as filtered through movies, with flashy, movie-inspired techniques. Instead, he boldly makes a film that’s ultra-realistic and performance-based, capturing all the details of existence in a rundown Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s a place where the future can never be taken for granted.

Cinematographer Andru Parekh compliments Flecks vision by shooting in a style that is probing and intimate. Despite the fact that New York is one of the worlds most photographed cities, even the Brooklyn landscape, with its low buildings and open spaces, appears fresh and unusual in the film.

Broken Social Scene Music

Midway through the writing process, a friend turned the filmmakers on to the music of popular indie rock band, Broken Social Scene. Certain scenes were actually inspired by their music, says Boden, We decided to play it on set to help establish a mood. In post-production, Fleck and Boden, who also worked as the movie’s editor, used the bands music throughout the film, even though they were unsure they would be able to use it in the final version. We eventually got a rough cut of the movie to the band, and fortunately for us, they loved it! says Fleck.


Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck began their artistic collaboration in 2002 on the documentary short Have You Seen This Man The short won several festival awards, premiered on PBS in 2003, and airs regularly on the Independent Film Channel.

Their most recent short “Gowanus, Brooklyn” premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, where it was awarded the grand jury prize in short filmmaking. The short was based on the feature-length script, “Half Nelson,” which Anna and Ryan co-wrote and developed at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

Anna and Ryan were recently named two of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film in Filmmaker Magazine. “Jovenes Rebeldes” (“Young Rebels”), Anna and Ryans first feature-length project, premiered at the MoMA/Lincoln Center 2005 New Directors/New Films series.