Half Nelson teaches that change is inevitable and tension continuous in living life. Ryan Gosling’s superb performance as an inner city high school history teacher addicted to drugs is a moving, sympathetic portrayal. The shifting mood swings of a man attempting to pull himself from the gutter while trying to practice his craft, move the viewer with the performer. Great sympathy and a greater desire for him to overcome, overcame me.
THiNKFilm has offered yet another independent film with a welcome cultural voice. Other reviewers have offered that his method of teaching was “edgy,” “making his students to think for themselves.” Having spent 25 years in the classroom I would take issue with such lavish praise of a life spinning out of control, trying desperately to find equilibrium within the school system.
Obtrusive, obnoxious directorial statements are the seeming out of place student oral reports on various American atrocities. “Cherry picking” history out of context is reflective of the liberal-minded process. Even those of us who support George W. Bush are sucker-punched by some half assed diatribe from the main actor while under the influence. Whereas my conservative sensibilities were bullied a bit in this film, I overwhelmingly recommend it to anyone who need be reminded and/or moved to compassion for people who have trouble getting out of their own dependence on drugs.
For those of us who lived in and through addictive households, we feel the knife edge against the skin. Not to be missed is the newcomer act of the year, Shareeka Epps. A thirteen year old student and player for the teacher/coach has a myriad of her own problems: an absent father, brother in prison, mother pulling double shifts to make ends meet, and the on again, off again presence of a drug-dealing family friend. The fight to remain upright is constant. Yet, this young woman reaches out to her friend, Gosling’s character, keeping a secret and a secret vigil for him. Key moments in the movie are the teacher inconsistently trying to explain to a class that right and wrong are both necessary in the universe after which he confronts the drug dealer to stay away from his student. Important too are the scenes where the main characters are victorious, then defeated by their circumstances.
Unconditional love is rare in life. To watch it lived out in front of us on film by mired, struggling humans sheds light and gives hope.
Rated R for troubling situations involving teenagers, drug use, language, and a scene of sexual intercourse.
Sensitivity is born of adversity. To watch Half Nelson is to glimpse both. Mark Eckel has taught high school for 17 years and is now Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Crossroads Bible College, Indianapolis, IN