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Case Number 10913

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Half Nelson

Sony // 2006 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // February 27th, 2007

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All Rise...

If Judge Jennifer Malkowski knew anything about wrestling moves, she'd say this film had an even stronger hold on her than a "half nelson"—at least a three-quarter nelson, probably.

The Charge

Secrets don't let go.

Opening Statement

An absent humming is replaced by the insistent blare of an alarm clock as Half Nelson opens on a close-up of a man staring straight ahead, seemingly unaffected by the shrill sound. A cut to a wider shot reveals that he is sitting on the floor of a musty living room in his underwear and an unbuttoned shirt, his coffee table pulled in close to his chest. In the half-light of morning, the alarm is sounding in his bedroom, and we realize he has been up all night snorting coke.

dan at home

From this brief portrait, we know we are dealing with a sad, messed-up guy—a man whose life is in shambles. Unfortunately, as we find out in the next scene, that man is also a beloved middle-school history teacher in a low-income neighborhood where drugs are a big problem.

This is the devastating set-up for one of the best films of the year and perhaps the decade—an understated little gem about hope, disillusionment, friendship, and how individuals work for change in this world.

Facts of the Case

Half Nelson's coke-snorting, crack-smoking teacher is Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling). When he's not nursing his drug habit, he spends his time teaching dialectics to rambunctious middle-schoolers and coaching girls' basketball. When a visit from an ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Tina Holmes), after a basketball game prompts him to smoke crack in the school bathroom, one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), finds him there and discovers his secret. That secret forms the basis of an unlikely friendship between the two, but it also complicates Dan's attempts to steer Drey away from a local drug dealer, Frank (Anthony Mackie), who is a "friend" of her family.

dan in the classroom

The Evidence

A movie of big ideas deftly filtered through an unimposing handful of characters, Half Nelson has as much to say about the individual and society as Dan does when he rambles distractedly about dialectics to his class. But as his lessons become less coherent with increased drug use, the intricate themes of the film connect more and more powerfully. His life hangs precariously on a series of clichés about the individual: one person can change the world; if you reach one student, you've made a difference, and his own, hopefully uttered to Drey, "Look, just because you know that one thing about me…one thing doesn't make a man." While his faith in these maxims was clearly strong once, a scene at a nightclub where he gets high and flirts with two women demonstrates its obvious erosion. He tries to explain his passion for teaching in between snorts of cocaine to an audience less than half-listening:

Dan: "If you change one person, right—"
Woman 1: "Then you can change them all."
Dan: "No, no. It's not that. The point is that if you change one—"
Woman 1: "Then you can teach…the rest of…the village…"
Woman 2: "You wanna dance?"
Woman 1: "Let's dance."

It's in this kind of scene that Ryan Gosling's celebrated performance really impresses—scenes when Dan is confronted with the extent of his disillusionment and his bullshit rationalizations for being a junkie. At the nightclub and elsewhere, Gosling is able to convey a sense of faded passion and conviction. He's not really trying to convince these women about the worthwhile nature of his work, he's just making drug-addled small talk with a topic he once cared about fiercely. During another instance of substance abuse, he rants more animatedly about Bush and the war in Iraq and the state of the world, but with an escalating tone of desperation and disbelief, concluding:

"So what the fuck do we do, you know? What do you do? What does one—I'm one man, what do I do, you know?"

Rooted in a study of "one man" and what he can (and can't) do, Half Nelson is also about the "one person" Dan can change: Drey. Like a walking case study from one of Dan's dialectics lessons, Drey's life is all about opposing forces pushing against each other. With an absent father, a mother working overtime, and a brother in jail, Drey is particularly vulnerable to the influence of the two forces vying for her allegiance. Frank wants to take her under his wing in the business of dealing drugs. Dan wants her to continue her path as a sweet, law-abiding good student—a hard path to stay on in their neighborhood. Caught between these two forces and feeling somewhat betrayed by both, Drey is the most likable character in the film. Shareeka Epps, a middle-schooler who had never acted before, offers a performance almost as mesmerizing as Gosling's—although, admittedly, in a less complex role. Rationing out her smiles to make them really mean somethi ng, Epps plays quiet tomboy Drey with a mask of stoicism that always has just the right level of transparency. When she hears that Dan has a date and earnestly gives him a corny joke to tell, because "women love jokes," your heart can't help but melt a little.


In addition to Gosling and Epps, Half Nelson boasts a number of other great actors playing great minor characters. Anthony Mackie has just the right kind of slick charisma to play Frank, which he smartly balances with moment of believable concern for Drey. He sells a great little detail that characterizes Frank, but could have felt forced: his habit of constantly offering Drey and Dan candy, like the stranger-with-candy of classic parental warnings. Tina Holmes, who had a brilliant turn in the final season of Six Feet Under, conveys a clear and moving tone in Rachel's relationship with Dan, despite the vagaries of their mountain of personal history. Denis O'Hare steals break-room scenes as a veteran teacher who reads horrific newspaper headlines out loud with a tone of lighthearted disbelief.

Ultimately, the problem with Frank's and Dan's battle for Drey's future is that they are not strictly opposing forces. This is where Half Nelson gets into some of its smartest and most depressing themes. A classroom scene about "the machine"—prisons, schools, "the man"—and the way it keeps people down hints at the hardest truths about Dan's life and his friendship with Drey:

Student: "Aren't you the machine, then?"
Dan: "Oh, no you didn't! What'd you say?"
Student: "Aren't you the machine?"
Dan: "You're saying I'm the machine?"
Student: "Yeah. You're white, you're part of the school."
Dan: [joking] "Oh, yeah. I guess you've got a point."

Dan laments, "We might be opposed to the machine, but we're still very much a part of it." But the "machines" of race and the educational system that he is a part of are in no way the biggest obstacles in his efforts to reach Drey. As much as he tries to justify and rationalize and avoid, being an addict makes him a big part of the drug machine that he is trying to save Drey from, and Drey can feel that hypocrisy. Frank isn't shy about pointing it out. When Dan comes to his house with a warning to stay away from Drey, he spits back, "It's good for Drey to have someone like you lookin' out for her, Mr. Model A1 fuckin' citizen?"

dan, frank, and drey

Half Nelson doesn't offer easy answers to the big questions it poses. When the story begins, we don't know if it is going to be about redemption, defeat, both, or neither. Brilliantly, we don't really know at the end, either. Like the opposing forces that push against each other in Drey's life, the film offers two opposing philosophies about change that push against each other in an unresolved, endless wrestling match:

Rachel: "Some people change, Dan. Some people actually change."
Dan: "Change moves in spirals."

Sony delivers a nice release of this incredible film, with a disc that satisfies in both the technical and special features departments. Visually the transfer isn't very demanding, as director Ryan Fleck employs a grainy, shaky-camera style, to great effect. Unlike trendy directors who throw those techniques in carelessly, Fleck and fellow filmmaker Anna Boden explain in their commentary that they based the visual style off of old Frederick Wiseman documentaries. That claim stands up to scrutiny with abundant long takes on people who seem to be doing nothing and the frenzied, improvisational feeling of direct cinema camerawork. The sound quality is nicely rendered here, too, with the roomy, hollow soundscape of a classroom and the softer tones of a family living room coming through equally well. The music sounds great, with the film's generous selection of Brooklyn hipster-type tunes, headlined by the talented Broken Social Scene. The deleted and extended scenes provided are of the best breed—short, interesting, and justifiably cut from the film. Highlights are a classroom scene between Dan and Drey that infuses their connection with an uncomfortable element of threat, and a scene in which the kids grill a substitute teacher about his knowledge of dialectics. The "Wanted" music video is skippable, feeling low-budget and self-congratulatory. Fleck and Boden's commentary is a little sedate, but offers some interesting details about Gosling's impressive acting techniques and their cinematic inspirations—including classic oddball buddy movies of the '70s.

Closing Statement

"So what the fuck do we do, you know? What do you do? What does one—I'm one man, what do I do, you know?"

Dan's drug-induced, despair-laden rant could be a mixed-up slogan for my generation of socially conscious twenty-somethings. Dan's parents, and mine, helped stop a war, but their idealism has largely given way to a kind of middle-age resignation with the state of the world. But taking to the streets isn't what it used to be, and our generation feels like it doesn't know how to change the world. Half Nelson, among other things, is a moving meditation on this particular paralysis. It offers catharsis and maybe even some hope to those of us, like Dan Dunne, who say we want to change the world, but mumble and avert our eyes as we speak those words.

The Verdict

For its subtle brilliance, unforgettable acting, and ability to make dialectics sound interesting, Half Nelson is cleared of all charges.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 97
Audio: 97
Extras: 80
Acting: 100
Story: 98
Judgment: 97

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary with Writer/Producer/Editor Anna Boden and Writer/Director Ryan Fleck
• Outtakes
• Deleted and Extended Scenes
• Rhymefest "WANTED" Music Video


• IMDb
• Official Site

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