Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is an earnest, slightly geeky, slightly cool history teacher at an inner-city junior high school. Loaded with an energetic teacher's infectious belief that knowledge is power, Dan wants to rescue his students from poverty and racism by peeling back the skin of American history.
Rather than clean up history and present it as a lifeless, vacuum-sealed thing, Dan indulges his students' streetwise cynicism about the world. He does them the honor -- so rarely granted to teenagers -- of telling them the truth. Veering dramatically from his stern female principal's curriculum, his lessons reveal a secret history of rebellion and protest and conflict.
Dan is also a hypocrite.
Though by day he empowers his students with the possibility of change, by night he sinks into inertia and hopelessness. When he's not inspiring his inner-city charges to soar toward Georgetown, Dan is snorting coke, picking up women in clubs and watching sitcoms instead of penning the book on dialectics he can't quite get around to writing.
And in his worst moments, he is hiding in a school bathroom stall, smoking crack.
It is there, with his feet drawn up to his chin, holding his breath for fear of detection, that Dan is discovered by one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps). Drey doesn't tell anyone what she's seen -- though you can see her carrying the secret around like an ulcer eating away at her insides. And in exchange, Dan becomes her friend and confidante.
Ryan Gosling is fascinating, both tragic and narcissistic as an idealistic middle-class liberal schooled in fancy critical theory. Though his bookshelf groans with Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto and other subversive tomes, Dan's real-world protest is meek and neutered. In one scene, he regales a one-night stand with lefty outrage over American complacency in the age of George W. Bush. His classroom lectures grow circular and muddled as the fire of his political outrage spirals into drug-addict philosophizing.
But it is Epps who steals this principled, intelligent film as a girl holding onto a thin scrap of innocence in a corrupting world. Though clearly boiling with ideas and feelings on the inside, on the outside Drey wears the tough, blank expression of a street-smart kid. It's only with the vulnerable, weak Dan that she can reveal her insecurities. Her hard, brittle facade cracks into something golden and childish.
Shot by director and co-screenwriter Ryan Fleck in proto-indie John Cassavetes' ragged, free-form style, Half Nelson is an utterly persuasive, emotionally wrenching character study of two decent people teetering on the precipice of moral obliteration. But Fleck's work is more than just a beautifully wrought tale of an addict who has allowed drugs to contaminate the one good, pure thing left in his life: the students who represent hope and the future. In Half Nelson, the futility of drug addiction becomes a metaphor for what it is like to live in a hopeless age.
In style, but also in spirit, Half Nelson shares an affinity with post-Vietnam, post-Watergate films like The Conversation. Gloomy and conspiratorial, such films suggested the elation of the 1960s and the belief that social change was possible had soured into the certainty that change was futile. In its own post-Sept. 11 way, Half Nelson gives the sense that we are living through our own hangover funk, too tired and apathetic to change the world.
Most movies about drug addiction ask that we care about an individual who is throwing away his life and health. Half Nelson offers a far more meaningful message. It allows us to see, through its metaphorical drug addict, how our society has begun to throw many things away. Dan isn't just destroying himself; by neglecting the children he teaches, he is throwing away the future.
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