Half Nelson (15)
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Time Out says
Fri Oct 27 2006Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), the inspirational, crack-addicted teacher at the centre of Ryan Fleck and co-writer-producer Anna Boden’s ‘Half Nelson’, meets up with an old flame. ‘I’m still an asshole,’ he tells her. ‘You’re not an asshole,’ she replies, ‘you’re just a big baby.’ ‘I’m a big baby asshole,’ he concludes. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Marxist dialectics are rarely taught in Brooklyn high schools, and even more rarely underpin a character-based feature. But both the classroom scenes and the dramatic structure of ‘Half Nelson’ are explictly rooted in the exploration of opposing forces, turning points and the constancy of change. The result, though sometimes a little overdetermined, is a refreshingly uningratiating, nuanced and subtle acknowledgment of bad in good and good in bad.
Ostensibly following the middle-class-teacher-galvanises-deprived-pupils model laid down by the likes of ‘Dangerous Minds’ and ‘Freedom Writers’, the film in fact offers a complex balancing act in which power and sympathy continually shift. Dan already has his class’s attention and respect when we meet them, and the friendship he develops with 13-year-old latch-key kid Drey (non-professional Shareeka Epps) begins when she discovers him smoking crack in the school toilets – at which point he neither threatens nor pleads with her, but demands her help. Both Gosling and Epps are terrific, his eyes heavy-lidded, drifting yet unmistakably self-knowing, hers defiant, wary and occasionally soft. Each demands empathy though neither is on a reassuring path to salvation. Dialectics, according to the children’s book which Dan is struggling to complete, is ‘a theory that tries to explain how change works’. In its five-steps-forward, four-steps-back way, ‘Half Nelson’ describes its limited progress with deft sophistication.
Author: Ben Walters
Fri Apr 20 2007