Half Nelson is One of the Year’s Best

I recently saw the film Half Nelson. I hadn’t heard anything about it before heading to the local indie theater – but it is great. The story is about an inner-city junior high school teacher (Dan – played by Ryan Gosling) who forms an strange friendship with one of his students (Drey – played by Shareeka Epps) after she discovers that he has a drug habit.


I’m not going to go through the entire plot of the movie. Instead i’m going to list some themes and scenes…..

One way to look at the movie is to see Dan representing the white liberal establishment of America: well intentioned and talented but undisciplined (or destructively disciplined).  To the establishment, the black youth is an abstract idea that can be addressed by exploring history and putting some serious thought and money behind the problem. However, the establishment, like Dan, falls flat on its face when you actually see how this course of action impacts the students. There’s a reason why Dan – who actually sees the futility – self medicates.

There are 2 cats shown throughout the movie – one in Dan’s apartment and another at Frank, the local drug dealer’s house (Frank is played by Anthony Mackie and is great in the movie). To me, the cats represent the respective white and black communities. Dan’s “white society” cat is inside his home and taken care of (housing, food, car and attention) – similar to his upbringing. Dan comes from a white middle-class family and is loved by his parents. On the flip side, Frank’s cat is not allowed inside the home and kicked to the streets where it must fend for itself – similar to his and Drey’s life. That’s why it so shocking to see “proper home” cat and a man who’s been given all the opportunities dying.

I love the scene where Dan goes to confront the drug dealer Frank. He asks that Frank stay away from Drey. I was expecting to see a few punches by someone. Instead, it stumbles into a conversation, to which Frank asks, “You’re supposed to be the good guy?” and Dan responds helplessly, “I don’t know! I don’t know!” These two guys are the two options provided for today’s youth – and they both know Drey deserves better.

Drey’s mom, who’s working double shifts to create a good life for the two of them faces quite a dilemma. She’s working a legit job yet that prohibits her from actually raising her child. Because she doesn’t subscribe to a lifestyle that Frank or her brother (imprisoned for selling drugs) do, it results in her been absent most of the time and Frank and Dan doing most of her daughter’s parenting. Which in itself is tragic and unbelievably sad.

Another great scene is when Drey and Frank are driving around selling drugs. It’s here in his car when he tells he that he relationship with her teacher (Dunn) is inappropriate. That’s right, the local drug dealer, while using an 8th grader to deliver the drugs doesn’t like that her and her teacher are actually becoming friends. Ah, it’s so good.

There are so many good scenes in this film. It worth your time to check it out.

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