A hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival “Half-Nelson” tells the story of a young, idealistic teacher struggling with personal demons. The independent film was directed by Ryan Fleck who shares the writer’s credit with his girlfriend Anna Boden.
Ryan Gosling stars as Dan, a white teacher trying to motivate his students at a mostly African American and Hispanic Brooklyn junior high school, while battling his own substance abuse issues.
Beginning with his look Mr. Gosling just nails the Brooklyn hipster icon, with his cool-nerd wardrobe, replete with short sleeve dress shirts and ties. He tops it off with a scruffy beard, oversized sunglasses and a constant cigarette dangling from his lips. Even the Ford station wagon he drives seems more vintage, then merely old.
He builds on the look with a persona that is all liberal leaning, staunchly middle class, public school educated. So it’s no surprise when we meet his parents and they talk about their desire to change the system when they were his age. They also drink too much and his father shows himself to be a bigot.
To his credit though, Dan’s no poseur. Watching him lead a history class it’s clear he believes in education and what it can mean to a child. The students in return like him and are engaged. It’s also clear he’s head strong, taking regular detours from the sanctioned curriculum, much to the disapproving gaze of the school principal.
True, we’ve seen it before and it almost feels like a cliché. The teacher all the kids love but the administration can’t abide because he does it his way. Except in this case it’s much more complex than that and feels very real.
In addition to his teaching Dan also coaches the girl’s basketball team. It’s here that he first connects with one of his student’s, Drey, played wonderfully in an understated performance by Shareeka Epps. She accidentally learns his secret and in turn he discovers a few of hers. They begin to learn from each other and soon to help each other.
Dan desperately wants to protect Drey and help her but the joke is he’s not even capable of helping himself. In a terrific scene of turnabout Dan confronts Frank a local drug dealer that has been looking out for Drey’s welfare, but may have other interests in her. Dan warns Frank to stay away from her. Frank reminds Dan that he’s the dope fiend, Frank just sells it. Who’s really a better role model?
There’s a scene early on in “Half-Nelson” that perfectly captures the film’s core conceit and Dan’s conflict. A cocaine addled party girl interrupts Dan’s righteous but stoned declaration about how teaching means something if you can just reach one student, when she suddenly interjects the misguided response that “then you can reach them all.” Of course, she misses the point, speaking in the circular logic of someone on a jag. I’m Erik Petersen for Movie Magazine International.
© 2006 - Erik Petersen - Air Date: 8/23/06
USA - 2006