Half Nelson - Review
Review by Jack Foley
A “HALF nelson” is a wrestling hold that’s virtually impossible to escape. It serves as an appropriate metaphor for Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s debut feature of the same name, given the vice-like grip it holds over audiences.
Half Nelson may not always make for easy viewing but it takes the inspirational teacher formula and turns it on its head.
What’s more, it boasts two excellent performances from Ryan Gosling – rightly acknowledged with an Oscar nomination earlier this year – and from young Shareeka Epps.
The film follows the fortunes of Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), an inner city junior high school teacher whose unusual approach inspires his pupils, even though his own personal life is a wreck.
Frustrated both idealistically and sexually, Dan is a drug addict who likes to get high every night. But when his secret is discovered by troubled student Drey (Shareeka Epps), it prompts him to take some responsibility and a bond subsequently develops between teacher and pupil that possibly offers each a way out of their perilous existence.
To complicate matters, however, a handsome drug dealer (Anthony Mackie) is trying to tempt Drey into a life of crime, even though he has already been responsible for putting her brother behind bars.
Far from wallowing in the usual classroom cliches, Half Nelson offers viewers a gutsy, intense experience that places gritty realism and flawed characters above anything overtly feel-good or sentimental.
Characters are disillusioned or misguided rather than merely good or bad, and they exist to survive rather than change the world.
Gosling’s teacher, for instance, may seem hell-bent on self-destruction but his attempts to “save” Epps’ student are genuinely root-worthy. Thankfully, there’s nothing showy about the direction and the script is, by turns, witty, barbed and poignant.
Fleck and Boden, who serve as writers, producers and directors, have adapted their own short feature Gowanus, Brooklyn (itself a Sundance Film Festival winner) and turned it into an enthralling experience that benefits by keeping things real.
And they benefit from some excellent performances as a result. Gosling, especially, is as charismatic and engaging as he is frustrating and self-centred, continually contradicting his own classroom lessons with his addiction to drugs. But Epps is also superb, lending her character a steely resolve that’s affecting enough to serve as both a catalyst for Dunne’s cry for help and to arm her with the qualities she needs to get by.
There’s strong support, too, from Mackie’s suave dealer, a brother figure determined to exploit Drey’s innocence for his own drug-dealing ends.
Throughout the film, Gosling’s teacher is obsessed by the notion of dialectics, or the exploration of opposing forces. Characters push and pull against each other, drawing on each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
In a similar way, Fleck and Boden’s movie pushes and pulls at viewers, pulling them into a difficult world from which there are no easy answers or pat resolutions.
So, while Half Nelson may lack the feelgood factor more commonly associated with inspirational teacher movies, it proves a class apart for all the right reasons and is well worthy of anyone’s examination.
Running time: 107mins