Directed by Ryan Fleck
Written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Rated R, 106 min., 2006
CHICAGO — What we are watching in Anna Boden’s and Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson” feels like a “full nelson.” The camera lingers, following two people. One is an 8th grade history teacher, Dan Dunn (Ryan Gosling). He’s bold enough to realize that 8th graders don’t fear learning dialectics, and he’s integrated that with his required course on civil rights.
The other is a student in his class, Drey (Shareeka Epps). She’s 13; he’s maybe in his early 30s. Dan is also the girls’ basketball coach. Drey is on the team. His reddish hair, lanky body, and the contortions he goes through are all we have to decipher what is in his head. She is quiet and direct, and her face could release enough melancholy to make the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans seem like tiny lakes. And because of the sadness, when she graces her face with a smile, it lights up all three coasts.
Dan lives alone in a very funky apartment. Drey lives almost alone as her mother needs to work about 18 hours a day to pay rent because there is no living wage law in her (or almost any) city. The only mention of her father, who doesn’t live there, is when he doesn’t pick her up when he’s supposed to. Her brother is in prison on a drug conviction. The drug dealer gives money to Drey to give to her mother, so she isn’t permanently at work. (Think of the mother in Flint, Mich., in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine”).
After a basketball game, Drey busts Dan who is sitting on the toilet in the girls’ locker room, crack pipe in his hand, his eyes somewhere between nirvana and hell. Dan seems unconscious of his compromising situation, and how quickly he might never set foot in a public school again. That scene and his inappropriateness with Drey in the rest of the movie are a signal to us about not just a very deep sadness and self-destruction, but it goes further. It’s a stinging indictment.
If Todd Solondz’s movies represent shining, happy, suburbanized incest and other sicknesses, then Fleck and Boden’s is the urban picture. “Half Nelson” is an essay and morality play on the psychic state of America that goes a little further than what Solondz does in suburbia.
Without orchestrated violins, the understated but not subtle attack of “Half Nelson” makes it clear just how much drugs and alcohol are integrated into our culture. It convinces us that the stars on our flag should be replaced with the drink and drug of our choice.
The movie has no “Rocky-esque-ness” to save the day; rather it tells us not to rest on our laurels and to continue to be subversive to the endless drone of the propaganda machine that tries to convince us that what we’re doing is always too little, too late.
What kind of propaganda machine tries to convince us that having 8th graders debate dialectics isn’t really enough? Isn’t that more exciting than Richard Nixon resigning, Mohammad Ali regaining the title, impeaching George Bush and arresting Donald Rumsfeld for war crimes all put together? No, the machine whispers to us, “Go get drunk; go get high; create enough drama from the drugs and alcohol to get us through the rest of the day.”
“Half Nelson” does have a glimmer of hope. It’s not much, but it’s there, and it’s a start. And that’s all that’s required.