‘Half Nelson’ no typical tale of inner-city life
September 29, 2006
Dan Dunne is white, smart and hip, the product of a privileged upbringing. That his career is as a history teacher in a virtually all-black middle school in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn seems to be a decision to lift himself as far from his ground as possible. It also seems like a story that has been told before, and need not be put to the screen again.
But Dunne, played by Ryan Gosling, is not the pure-hearted white knight looking to do good in the world. And because he isn’t, “Half Nelson,” directed and co-written by Ryan Fleck, doesn’t echo past story lines of someone trying to put things right in an urban American school that needs more than one devoted teacher.Dunne himself needs as much work as the school and its students. “Half Nelson” provides little in the way of a back story, but somehow Dunne has devolved into a crack-smoker, isolated and moody. He has a good rapport with his students, partly because he is a rebel: He, too, gets in trouble with the principal, for refusing to teach by the book, instead giving civil rights history an edgy, more personal spin. But Dunne fits in more because his actual existence is a piece of theirs. He doesn’t take flight to the suburbs when the school bell rings; his apartment is shabby, and his life is a mess. And like his students, he knows that things could get worse very quickly, very easily.
The closest witness to this tightrope existence is Drey, a quiet, remote eighth-grader played by Shareeka Epps. Drey has been through plenty in her 12 years: Her father is mostly absent, while her mother pulls a massive workload as a prison guard. Perhaps her closest friend is Frank (Anthony Mackie), a drug dealer who used to work with Drey’s older brother, now imprisoned. It is through Drey’s wide, nonjudgmental eyes, that we see Dan.Fleck, who co-wrote the script with Ann Boden, sidesteps every cliché of films set in inner cities and stories about drug users. In “Half Nelson,” there is no violence; the suggestion of danger, in the way cars drive slowly past and the look of the neighborhood, is more powerful than onscreen mayhem. Dan doesn’t struggle with his habit so much as accept it. When an old girlfriend appears and asks how he’s doing, his answer – “Same old, same old,” with a wry smile – indicates that this is not a film about someone wrestling with the same old demons.Most unusual and satisfying of all, the film’s moment of conflict comes not between Dan and Drey, but between Dan and Frank. Raising issues of race and machismo, each one believes he is best suited to be a friend to Drey, each conveniently overlooking the poor role model they make. Dan confronts Frank, warning him to keep away from Drey, and the unexpected way the scene plays out is the film’s high point, a moment of resolution and self-awareness that provides hope in a mostly gritty film.”Half Nelson” is an expansion of “Gowanus, Brooklyn,” Fleck’s 19-minute short that earned Special Recognition at Aspen Shortsfest 2004. But Fleck hasn’t added so much in the way of plot. “Half Nelson” still has much of the vibe of a short film: The visual style feels experimental, and the storytelling is more akin to a snapshot than a wide-angle portrait. But the two principal actors convey an enormous depth. We may not get much in the way of story, but Gosling and Epps make us see vividly what the consequences of their lives have been.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org