Half Nelson (2006) (E)

IMDb / Cale / Sragow
Written by Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden
Directed by Ryan Fleck

Traditionally, drug addicts in the movies are dealers or unemployed: figures on the margins of society physically and intellectually. They are certainly not people in positions of authority or importance. The protagonist of Half Nelson is Daniel Dunne, an inner-city high school teacher who smokes crack in the bathroom after coaching his basketball team after school. As such, this film offers the most mature depiction of drug addiction I’ve seen in movies. Dan is a real person, with real strengths and failings. He knows how his drug problem limits him, but he can’t be bothered to do something about it – or perhaps he doesn’t know how.

The film focuses on Dan’s relationship with Drey, a girl in his class who catches him slumped inside a toilet cubicle one afternoon at school. Drey lives with her single mother, a paramedic who works long hours, so Drey spends a lot of time hanging out with Frank, a drug dealer who consequently is wealthier than most of the community they live in. Frank has sold to Dan, and when Dan sees how Frank is taking Drey under his wing, he moves to intervene despite being in no real position to tell someone to stay away from drugs. It gives nothing away to say that she does eventually spurn Frank’s enterprise, and that this is a direct result of Dan’s actions, but certainly not in the way you’d expect.

This is typical of a film that doesn’t reach for anything beyond telling simple truths about normal people. Lofty ideas such as the current state of drug abuse in America, the battle between teachers and high school students of different races, or the problems of middle American families are avoided, but in the course of telling its story the film touches on all of these in some way or another. Instead of delving in and searching for answers, it succinctly shows what’s going on and leaves you to think about it. What I’d give to be offered such rich opportunities for thought every time I watch a movie, to have spoonfeeding struck from Hollywood conventions… some hope.

For example, we do get to kind of see where Dan’s problem stems from in a five minute sequence covering a night back home having dinner with his family. It only hints at the difficult familial relationships Dan has, and the escape drugs will have given him, but most of it is given over to contemplation on the viewer’s part. The movie is about the impact of his problem, not its origin. Fleck has said he was influenced by Altman, and it shows in these scenes in which people may be talking, but what they say isn’t really important: it’s the way the move, the way they sit, the looks on their faces that tell you everything. There’s no proselytizing – it leaves all the thinking up to you.

And you will think. Throughout the film, there are several of these wonderful periods of silence during which there’s so much going on even though nothing of consequence is said or done. It takes great skill to make scenes like these work. You have to make the audience forget they’re watching a movie and get them to live in the characters’ minds for the duration, and Fleck does it like he’s made a hundred movies (this is in fact his first). He achieves this not just through a great script, but by shooting the right thing in each scene to make sure its dramatic intent is understood. Like when Drey is having burgers with Frank, and Frank gets up and does the chicken walk, but the camera stays with Drey and her reaction. It’s another small moment that just works because we understand that Drey is what matters here.

Frank is the antagonist, I suppose, but he isn’t a bully or a thief, which is yet another of the film’s pleasant surprises. He’s a bad influence on Drey, but only in terms of the path he’s leading her down, not really in attitude. It’s a socially unacceptable path that could lead to hurt, and Dan feels that he must do something about it because he’s probably the only one who can, but how do you do that when your weekly budget includes $50 for crack & coke? There’s an incredible scene in which Dan confronts Frank without any real plan of attack, and what ensues will surprise any viewer.

Ryan Gosling plays Dan. He was nominated for an Oscar, and he probably should’ve won (though haven’t yet seen Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland). His is a performance of outstanding skill: subtle, understated, deeply felt and understood. He spends a lot of time brooding, but offers several moments of delight in his interactions with the kids. Then there’s newcomer Shareeka Epps as Drey, who is stunning in a role that calls for her to seem strongly independent yet vulnerable at the same time. Special mention should go to Anthony Mackie as Frank, who avoids caricature and gives us one of the most convincing opposing forces in recent history. Yeah, the whole cast is great, from these lead players to the smallest, single-line role. The set must have been a relaxed place of much laughter and creativity.

I’ve run out of steam. Just see it. I’ve watched it three times in a week, and I’ll probably watch it a couple more times before moving on to something else. It has everything I ask for from a film. (Except explosions. I’ll hopefully get those from Transformers and The Bourne Ultimatum.)

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