Thursday, December 14, 2006

Half Nelson (2006)

Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006)

After a basketball match between his inner city school and a rival team, teacher and coach (government schools barely have funds to hire a separate coach) Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) retreats to the locker room and starts to indulge on crack. Drey (Shareeka Epps) discovers her teacher in the act of substance abuse. A connection arises from the incident: Dan has always been a substance abuser but concedes to the fact that it's the children he teaches that keeps him sane; Drey is from a broken family --- her brother has been imprisoned as a fall guy for a bigger crack merchant, Frank (Anthony Mackie).

The connection that arises is built upon a fragile thread that can go either way. The relationships that are suddenly built are as combustible as their direction-less lives. The film treads to a direction that is entirely undecipherable as it reflects the surprises of actual lives rather than Hollywood myths. Half Nelson is perhaps too potent and poignant to be inspirational; actually, its not inspirational at all as it derives reaction from political propositions rather than artificial narrative movements.

Director Ryan Fleck achieves an uncomfortable realism that invades the genre that is delegated to put upon the pedestal the lives of the little people. Here, everybody is little --- the crack-addicted history teacher makes sure everyone knows this. He does not deprive the children from putting American history in the perspective of dialectics instead of memorization of blunt facts and historical points. His distinct lesson plan involves his students in the middle of the historical race of opposing forces; them being merely participants and not the rightful heroes at the end of the tale. The realization that he himself is merely a messenger of his historical theory rather than a mover puts a poignant ache to his mission. His helpless self pleading (with an embarrassed sense of authority) for water to the still and stable witness of his self-destruction puts him in the spotlight; is he a hypocrite? Such question drives him to action.

Historical and political forces drive Dan to cognize the action as an unwanted protection to the unprotected youth. Frank the drug dealer takes an interest on the unarmed girl; the same way he took an interest on her older brother, turning him into his elongated arm for crack transactions. Dan sees Frank rooting for Drey in a basketball game; a connection is made again and his sense of action puts upon him the mission of protecting Drey from the world he presumes he already knows.

The relational dynamics are portrayed with earnest demand. Fleck's camera unsteadily focuses on his subject's faces; zooms in to the time-trained details that declare their personal historical pains the film does not try to uncover. It's all about subtle alarms --- the way unrelated historical lessons are given by Dan's students in interspersed timing, the way events are sewn together by the mundaneness of real life. Half Nelson ends in the same uneventful note; with a slight glimmer of hope in the duo's reconciliation, very slight glimmer of hope. Had the film continued, I'd predict Drey to still join Frank's crew, Dan to continue sniffing crack, and the Boston inner city public school to continue degenerating students into angst-ridden angry citizens of their United States of America.

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