A Review by Tom Condon, OP
(St. Martin Province)
is an independent film which has been receiving a lot of
critical acclaim this summer. It is the story of Dan Dunne
(Ryan Gosling), a young middle school history teacher in
Brooklyn. Dan has the makings of a great teacher: he clearly
loves teaching, and takes a personal interest in his students.
He is involved not only in the classroom, but as coach of
the girls’ basketball team. The early classroom scenes
have a great feel to them, as Dan engages the students in
a discussion on societal change. Dan espouses a dialectical
theory of history: change occurs when two opposing forces
clash. He uses the Civil Rights Movement as an example of
the dialectical theory. The film’s title, a wrestling
hold, is also a reference to his dialectical theory.
From the first scene, the audience knows that this likeable,
charismatic teacher is dealing with a major problem: He
is addicted to crack cocaine. As Half Nelson progresses,
the audience watches in sadness and frustration as Dan falls
more and more under the spell of crack. His relationships
suffer as he pushes others away. More and more he sits stoned
in his classroom, looking like he had been hit by a truck.
Yet, there is still a flicker of life in him, and his eyes
sparkle with the joy of seeing his students learn. Dan’s
students become his only connection with the outside world.
But even that connection is fading fast.
At the heart of Half Nelson is Dan’s relationship
with one of his students, Drey (wonderfully played by the
young Shareeka Epps). Drey is a girl who has had to grow
up fast. Her mother works as an EMT, and is seldom home.
Drey’s brother is in prison. Drey rarely smiles, and
seems to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders.
As with the current Little Miss Sunshine, a young girl becomes
the film’s wisdom figure. After a basketball game,
Drey finds Dan stoned in the rest room. Dan and Drey become
soul-mates of a sort, understanding both the loneliness
and the promise in each another. (At this point I feel compelled
to note that, while the relationship between teacher and
young student is inappropriate, it is not sexual).
is evident, Half Nelson is a difficult film to watch. Watching
the smart, talented, likeable Dan throw his life away is
tough indeed. Ryan Gosling (best know for his performance
in a very different film, the 2004 romantic drama The Notebook),
has been receiving rave reviews for his performance. He
has no grandstanding scenes, just a slow progression into
darkness. Yet even at his lowest, Gosling brings out the
humanity in a subtle look in his eye.
The end of the film leaves us wondering what will become
of Dan and Drey. The screenplay by Ryan Fleck (who also
directed) and Anna Boden does not serve up a happy Hollywood
ending. Yet the final scene between Dan and Drey provides
a tiny glimmer of hope. If Dan is able to survive, it will
be because of the strength he finds in his relationship
with Drey. She is a mediator of God’s grace in Dan’s
life (as he is in hers.)
Would I recommend Half Nelson? It’s pretty grim stuff,
at times slow, definitely not a “feel good”
movie. Even though it is well acted by Gosling and Epps,
Half Nelson is not a great film. Yet there is a sense of
reality in these characters. Sadly, we know that there are
a lot of Dan’s in the world, squandering the promise
of their lives. There are also a lot of Drey’s as
well, fine, tough kids surviving on the mean streets of
the big city. Is there any hope for them? I hope the faint
light amidst the dark reality of Half Nelson speaks a message
of hope to all those Dan’s and Drey’s, as well
as the rest of us who care for them.
Tom Condon, OP
at his lowest, Gosling brings out the humanity in a subtle
look in his eye.
MPAA Rating R - for drug content throughout, language and
The USCCB Office for Film &
Broadcasting classification is A-III --