The Drug Grapple - 'Half Nelson' Movie Review

Updated on July 11, 2019
Sam Shepards profile image

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interest is science fiction and zombie movies. Pessimistic and survival films I also enjoy a lot.

Half Nelson doesn't lose any time to establish Ryan Gosling as the main voice of its story. In here, Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a young history teacher at a Brooklyn high school.

Dan isn't necessarily a communist, but his thoughts are undoubtedly revolutionary. He shows Mario Savio's 'bodies upon the gears' speech to his students and confronts them about how prisons, the white man and the same school are part of "the machine" that systematically oppresses society. It also teaches the other September 11, the 1973 one, in which the United States Government overthrew the democratically elected president of Chile Salvador Allende.

Dan, obviously, is loved by his students for his passion and for his out-of-the-box vision of education. Of course, he's not very well received by his superiors. His school director doesn't stop telling him to stick to the established curriculum and not to chew gum in the classroom.

There is something interesting in the fact that Dan gets along very well with younger generations, but is clumsy and complicated with his colleagues or people close to his age. It's like as if Dan has simply abandoned adults to concentrate on those who still have a chance to be the better people this planet needs.

Dan seems to be deeply unhappy with his reality, local and global. That's why when he is not practicing his profession with passion, he takes refuge in the escapism of drugs, specifically cocaine.

It's clear: the only thing he cares about is trying to open the eyes of his students. When he is not doing that, he must get high to not die of apathy and sadness.

The other side of Half Nelson is Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of Dan's students. A 13-year old African-American girl, Drey has a broken home: An absent father, a mother who is always working late and a brother in prison for selling drugs for Frank (Anthony Mackie), the neighborhood dealer. The worst part is that Drey is vulnerable to Frank's attempts to introduce her to "the business".

That's why when Drey discovers Dan getting high in a locker room, the connection is immediate. The white consumer and the black poor student "destined" to be a dealer, united in an uncomfortable moment.

Dan and Drey develop a cute and interesting friendship. Dan, more than being a father figure, it's kind of caring older brother that perhaps because of his addiction, can better understand the world from which she comes. Drey, being unable to judge his teacher for his habit, manages to connect with him.

But Dan, who obviously wants a better world, decides to not let Drey fall into the drug world, even knowing he's not the best role model she can have.

Half Nelson is surely a slow burn, but thanks to its handheld feel and its genuine performances, the movie is able to show an engaging story. One that is much more common than we think.

Of course, Dan fails enormously in his attempt. Dealing with his own demons, he ends up pushing Drey from his life because of the "weird" relationship. Drey ends up making a "test run" as Frank's delivery, possibly starting a "career" that would likely end like his brother's.

And then, the climax. One of the places where Drey delivers the drug is a small stoner gathering hosted by Dan. The slight shame that both experienced at the time of the transaction is a great cinematic moment. It's the perpetual drug problem perfectly portrayed in a scene. The poor black girl with few options and the white adult who hates his privilege but can't help being part of "the machine" that moves vice and alienation.

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Half Nelson, however, decides to close its story in a somehow positive note. Upon realizing that Dan has been replaced by a temporary teacher, Drey decides to pay him a visit. She even rejects a "hangout" invitation from Frank. Dan receives her in his apartment, serves her a glass of water, gets a clean cut shave (because I don't know, it's well known that a clean-shaven person doesn't use drugs?) and tries to make a daddy's joke that obviously goes awry. But both end up laughing, happy with each other's company.

Drey has made the conscious decision to ignore Frank and to support a friend who, although has severe problems, has a big heart. Dan has ... well, Dan has his new shave that--I assume--symbolizes that he is amending his life.

Yes, that final scene makes Half Nelson look incredibly naive to force a more constructive feel. But hey, being happy in these dark times is the truly revolutionary act, so fuck off.

Movie Details

Title: Half Nelson

Release Year: 2006

Director(s): Ryan Fleck

Actors: Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Shareeka Epps a.o.

3 stars for Half Nelson

© 2019 Sam Shepards

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