Movie Reviews: Half Nelson

Zoe Gordon

“I’m ok. I’m fine,” Dan, a junior high school history teacher played by Ryan Gosling repeats from the floor of a bathroom stall, shivering and still clutching his vial of crack as Drey, one of his students, hovers above him.

Half Nelson rose out of the Sundance Film Festival, containing equal intensity and bitter honesty. It is a film that maintains a political consciousness, intent not on fixing the problems of the world, but rather striving to present societal issues to its viewers, making a plea to maintain moral awareness.

The film has a lot of issues to tackle in choosing a setting in dilapidated Brooklyn (crime, drugs, race, education), but the plot does a noteworthy job of maintaining focus, using the relationship formed between a teacher and student as its springboard. The bond that forms between Dan, a charismatic teacher and struggling drug addict, and Drey, a young girl burdened by a family torn apart by drugs, is one of co-dependency. Both characters need rescuing from similar environments, and the film very poignantly notes that a single hand can do a great deal.

Dan teaches his students lessons on civil rights and the related historical politics. Later he returns to a sordid apartment to binge on drugs until the next day of class. Drey, meanwhile begins working for a local crack dealer around her neighborhood, just as her imprisoned brother did before her.

Half Nelson is a film full of honest contradictions. It is not shy in questioning what makes a man, whether or not one can perform good for the very neighborhood in which they are terribly bad. Dan may be the teacher, but he and the audience are the ones who end up getting educated.