Half Nelson
Directed by: Ryan Fleck
(ThinkFilm)
In Half Nelson, teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) forgoes the standard curriculum to teach the kids in his grade eight history class about dialectic and change. Most of Dunne’s students are black and their school isn’t that nice; it seems initially that Dunne is being set up, like many noble movie-made teachers before him, as a hero who will inspire kids the system has neglected. But director/co-writer Ryan Fleck (and writing partner Anna Boden) override this potential for cliche by making Dunne not only human, but deeply flawed. Dunne’s a crack addict who says rehab doesn’t work for him. As he tries to save one of his students from a life of drug dealing, his hypocrisy keeps him from being the role model he wants to be. Gosling is up for Best Actor at this week’s Oscars for his portrayal of self-destructive Dunne, and rightfully so—he’s mesmerizing. Unlike many films in the “inspiring teacher” tradition, Half Nelson doesn’t offer any easy answers. Dunne’s students don’t really save him, either. This isn’t to say the movie is contrivance-free. Dunne gets high in the locker room and is caught by a student; the development rings false, so it’s unfortunate the movie’s plot hinges on it. Half Nelson juxtaposes Dunne’s inspirational speeches with crack parties and ends on an unsatisfying note. That’s why it’s good.
—Lindsay McCarney

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