I decided to repost this short review after screening this film in my class. This piece originally appeared in 2012.
Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have been collaborating on films for years. The film that I most highly regard to date (Fleck and Boden share writing credits, but Fleck directs while Boden produces) is their 2006 feature Half Nelson, starring Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, and Anthony Mackie.
Half Nelson follows the journeys of Dan Dunn (Gosling) and his student Drey (Epps) as their lives interconnect, and each becomes essential to the survival of the other. This rather formulaic scenario is derivative of Martin Brest’s extremely popular film Scent Of A Woman (1992). Brest’s film, a sentimental remake of an Italian film from 1976, is primarily concerned with the relationship and co-dependency of two archetypal characters, the older mentor and the young student. The variation of the relationship in Scent Of A Woman that incorporates a critique of America’s own educational system first reached a critical status with a pair of films by Gus Van Sant, Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000). Half Nelson employs the same beats and narrative structure of Gus Van Sant’s films, but manages to raise the stakes so that the drama within the formula becomes far more urgent.
Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester feature protagonists who are much more mature than those in Half Nelson. The mentors in either of Gus Van Sant’s films (played by Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting and Sean Connery in Finding Forrester) are well into their fifties or older, and have forgotten how to “live”, which in both cases means to partake and cherish new experiences. Gosling’s Dunn is the much younger and inexperienced mentor to a thirteen-year-old Drey. Unlike the Williams or Connery characters, Dunn has not given up on life out of frustration at an old age, but because his dependency on crack prevents him from confronting his own limitations and failures. The circumstances of Dunn’s position as the mentor in this formula allow his condition and his struggle to imbue the film with an urgency that was absent in Gus Van Sant’s films. The same could be said of Drey, who is not only female, but also five years younger than the youngest of her male counterparts in Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. Her youth and her sex makes Dunn’s dependency on her all the more awkward and seemingly dangerous, just as her dependency upon him is jeopardized by his drug abuse.
The topical nature of Dunn’s afflictions coupled with the film’s cinematographic style elevate Half Nelson from the cushy sentimentality of Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, so that the ideas and narrative arcs of the film appear fresh. Photographed by Andrij Parekh, Half Nelson utilizes a cinematic style that is kinetic, both in the speed of its moving shots and in the rapidity of its focus pulling. These style choices work as signifiers to the audience, cueing them to recall the cinema verite documentarians of the sixties and seventies. The affiliation to documentary style in Half Nelson allows the fiction of the film to pass for fact during its duration.
Adhering to the classical modes of social realist filmmaking in America, Half Nelson also makes use of an open-ended resolution (a tactic popularized in the films of Jerry Schatzberg). Neither Dunn nor Drey actually solve their problems, but recognize them at the film’s conclusion. The film offers no speculation or clues as to the trajectory of either character’s lives. As far as the audience can discern, Dunn could just as easily do crack in the next scene as he could never do crack again. Though such a conclusion is one of the mainstays in American realism, its appearance in a film like Half Nelson is refreshing, and indicates a sort of fluency in genre blending on the part of the filmmakers.
The most unique technical innovation of Half Nelson comes neither from its roots in archetypal character portraiture or in neo-classicist realism. The defining innovation comes from how the filmmakers mark the passing of time in the film. To indicate a week has passed, the film cuts to one of Dunn’s middle school students giving an excerpt from an oral report to the class, which is accompanied by a montage of newsreel footage. These brief scenes not only indicate Dunn’s proficiency as an unorthodox and charismatic history teacher, but the passing of a section in his curriculum. These oral reports range in topics from the Attica prison riots to the CIA involvement in the taking of power of Pinochet. Not one of the topics on which a report is given is featured in the standard curriculum of an American public school, a fact that both reinforces Dunn’s passion for what he does and helps illustrate why the faculty perceive him as a sort of outsider.
All these clips during these montage sequences culled from newsreels also ground the films racial politics within a wider historical context. In terms of the classic Stanley Kramer style “white savior” narrative of American cinema, Half Nelson is wonderfully subversive. Dunn may be an excellent teacher, but the moral lessons he can impart to Drey are few and far between. Dunn is a narcissist. Drey, a teenaged Black student fits the savior mold far better than Dunn. And yet neither seems to be defined by a need to “save” or “redeem” another character. It is in Dunn and Drey’s pursuit of self-identity that circumstances beyond their control prompt any dramatic device resembling that of salvation. Fleck and Boden have carefully, and quite artfully, scripted Half Nelson to operate almost exclusively within a “grey” area. And I would argue that by keeping Half Nelson grounded within this moral “grey area” that the filmmakers really succeed in keeping their film from devolving into standard Oscar-bait.
The problems characters face in Gus Van Sant’s films are exaggerated for melodramatic effect while those exhibited in Half Nelson have become more and more relevant in the years since the films release. Drey comes very close to following her brother’s path in the film, a path that ultimately landed him in jail, when she begins running drugs for her brother’s friend Frank (Mackie). One of the people Drey sells too is her friend and teacher Mr. Dunn, whom she first became friendly with when she discovered him smoking crack in the locker room while she was waiting for a ride. Though the events in Half Nelson are indeed indebted to melodrama, they appear as transcendent of that stylistic device because the scenes are not underscored by music or Oscar worthy monologues. Instead, Half Nelson relies on its film technique and its strong cast to transcend the boundaries of formula to become a film that is a clear reflection of America today.