Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.



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Half Nelson

Film #337


An inner-city junior high school teacher with a drug habit forms an unlikely friendship with one of his students after she discovers his secret.

Year 1, Day 337

BEFORE: Wrapping up this three-day Ryan Gosling chain comes yet another film that was recommended to me. Half Nelson was mentioned in my short film writing class last semester as the feature film came after a short film titled “Gowanus, Brooklyn” and it sounded interesting so I figured I’d add it to my list.

AFTER: History, according to Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), is change. What change do two opposing forces create? It’s an idea that is repeated constantly throughout the film, one Dunne tries to drill into his students. The idea itself, and the medium through which it is expressed - Dunne’s relationship with his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps) in particular - is a great one that allows for some great moments. But Half Nelson either reaches too high and fails to meet that level, or it doesn’t try at all.

As seems to be the case in these three Gosling films, a recurring positive has been the acting. Not only from Gosling himself, but from the other leads and supporting characters as well. What Gosling does best here is show both sides of Dan Dunne. He’s a teacher who loves history, who loves his kids, and finds joy and solace in education. On the flip side he’s a drug addict and very unstable which progressively leads to problems on the school side of the spectrum. It’s almost like a war is going on inside Dunne and Gosling effortlessly shows us this, with even a simple stare into the distance telling a whole story. There are many other solid performances from the rest of the cast, but the one I want to call out is that of the child lead, Shareeka Epps. She commands the screen doing almost as good of a job as Gosling does. Her character, who is only 13 years old, is put through a whole lot of stress and turmoil in her life, more than I can even imagine. Her mother is almost always out working, her brother is in jail for dealing drugs, her father is nowhere to be seen, and her brother’s friend Frank (Anthony Mackie) slowly lures her over to join his operation (read: drugs). You can see her resist at first, and see her prosper in school with the help of Dunne, but as Dunne gets worse, Drey’s resolve falters. The acting all around really sells the story and not only makes it believable, but makes it enticing.

Everything isn’t straight A’s though. While the film does get you hooked and you become highly invested in what happens with these characters, parts of the film seem superficial and not incorporated that well. While I appreciated the students giving presentations on various history topics (the one kid talking about Harvey Milk was great; I’m assuming his last line was improv), it didn’t seem to fit. Obviously the film focuses on Dunne, a history teacher, and the class he teaches (it’s not like they were giving presentations on the periodic table), but it felt out of place. Another thing that felt out of place were most of Dunne’s lectures in class. Again, not out of place in a logical sense (it is a classroom setting, subject is history, etc.) but in the sense that it doesn’t really tie in with the rest of the film. Right from the first class, I thought I had the film pegged and the ideas in Dunne’s lessons would be related to what happens in the film itself. The argument could be made it does - Dunne and Drey go through change, there are many opposites in the film, etc. - but I feel as though the film held back. It had the foundation in place and even began some construction, but then they left the house with just the walls standing bare. Half Nelson didn’t finish what it started.

Most films I’ve seen involving a school setting seem to focus on either a student or a teacher (usually the student), but not both. Half Nelson looks not only at the teaching side of things with Dan Dunne, but also at the learning side with Drey. And it shows the relationship between the two: the teacher also learns and the student also teaches. Led by an extraordinary cast, Half Nelson is full of serious moments and happy ones; tense moments and calm ones. It may seem incomplete in areas but the parts that are polished are amazing.

RATING: 4 out of 5