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Half Nelson

"Half Nelson" is about a young eighth-grade history teacher in Brooklyn, Dan (Ryan Gosling), and his relationship with one of his favorite students, the sensible Drey (Shareeka Epps), who also plays on the basketball team, which Dan coaches.   We’ve seen inner-city classroom dramas before.   Distinguishing this film is its remarkable eschewal of all Hollywood-isms, oh, and the fact that the good-humored teacher/coach happens to have a raging crack addiction.  

He is white and she is black.   I mention race because it’s one of the film’s themes; another is history.   Neatly incorporating both themes, director Ryan Fleck gives us shots of a collection of those antebellum figurines of mammies and minstrels with hideously exaggerated leering features.   They’re owned, ironically, by a black person, a neighborhood crack dealer who seeks to mentor Drey.   Witnessing her coach in thrall to the drug has aroused her curiosity about the dark side of the street: she discovers him lying in a bathroom stall, pathetic and helpless--not in distress, just so high that he can’t stand up.   Her eyes are hard as she crouches over him, but they don’t register shock.   Life has taught Drey that people do what they have to do in this world to get by.  

Dan wants to teach the kids the history of oppression; he wants badly that they should grasp dialectics, the concept that change is a product of the clash of opposing forces.   As they give oral reports on various social clashes, Fleck shows us footage of their subjects: the Attica rebellion, the U.S. backed overthrow of Allende by Pinochet on 9/11 (’73, that is), the great Mario Savio, Harvey Milk.  

Observing Dan’s bookshelf Drey drolly notes, “You’ve sure got a lot of books about black people.”   His shelves creak with lefty theoretical tomes; the problem for Dan is that human beings don’t conform to monolithic theories, which do violence to the irony and complexity of human life.   Not that these ironies are lost on him: though he’s against “the Man,” Dan finds himself confronting a member of the black lumpen-proletariat--the dealer, from whom he’s desperate that Drey stay away.  

At a dinner party at Dan’s parents’ place, wine and cocktails flow.   His mom, a “60’s generation” person, puts their old copy of “Free to Be You and Me” on the turntable and places the needle on “It’s Alright to Cry.”   As he listens tears well up and his face contorts.   Meanwhile his dad, in his cups and making jokes about Ebonics, can’t conceal his bitterness toward inner-city denizens, proximity to whom he feels has turned his son into a crack head.   It’s such a well-turned scene: we meet these people for only a moment, but like the main characters they feel fully drawn.   I feel like I’ve known variations of almost all of the people in this movie.  

This is smart, honest filmmaking, though some viewers will be unsatisfied or even annoyed because, while the film shows the horrible problems and barbarous behavior that smoking crack causes in Dan’s life (making him particularly woeful at handling such emotions as anger and lust), it never shows him struggling to change (or even wanting to).   I’ve rarely seen a film so non-judgmental of its characters.   This approach echoes Drey’s non-judgmental view of Dan and the other people in her life.   Like Drey, this film takes the world as it finds it.


- Sep 24, 2006

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