Half Nelson

“Am I to believe they had sexual intercourse?”

When the final texts scroll up the screen on the Ryan Fleck directed Half Nelson, no one is credited for how ill at ease the film’s unanswered questions leaves me feeling.

It would be easy to blame in on the witty writing credited to Anna Boden or the directorial abilities of Fleck – who also shares writing credits. But I could also as easily point a blameful finger at the editor or the actors or ultimately, and most likely, myself.

Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 Sundance Festival, Half Nelsonis not the romantic comedy its name suggests. Nor is it a drama in the traditional sense of the term.

The film’s main characters are a loving and dedicated middle-school teacher Dan Dunne (played smartly by Ryan Gosling) and one of his promising female students at the inner-city school, Drey (a steely performance by Shareeka Epps).

Though he puts in extra time coaching after-school basketball, and she plays daughter to a low-income single mother and is in a constant battle between the draw of the streets and a love for academia and athleticism, a rendition of the PG-13 rated Coach Carter this is not.

The set-up is the same, but the results (or lack there of) and how we get to them are decidedly different. Chapters are separated by formal monologue deliveries of relevant historical events, humor is injected in the form of expressly unrelated and bizarre news stories, and though it would have been easy to characterize the middle-school students as overly mature gangstas-in-the-making, the writing team breaks from stereo-typification by depicting them simply as average all-American kids.

As the film progresses Dan is stumbled upon, mid-fix, toking a crack pipe in the girls’ locker room stall after a home game. Much later Drey is caught delivering cocaine, at the beset of a close family friend, to a dingy motel room amid pornographic debauchery. The quirk of fate is that they are both discovered by each other and this forms the foundation for their inappropriate and awkward bond.

In classic Freudian psychology girls want to date their fathers – or the closest representation that they can find. Drey’s familial situation leaves her to her own devices on most occasions, with no maternal superstructure to turn to for support or pubescent guidance.

The thirteen-year-old Drey seems emotionally interested in the two father figures in her life: the drug dealing Frank, who is the reason her brother is in jail and Dan Dunne, her drug-addicted yet brilliant history teacher.

Dan is also exploring relationships. He can manage nothing more than one-night stands fueled by drugs, and when an ex-girlfriend and old time drug partner shows up totally rehabilitated and engaged to be married, Dan sees very little hope for himself.

The strange relationship between himself and Drey devolves to the point where she, in a manner more mature than her age, ends up calling him an asshole in the school parking lot. As she rides away “Bitch!” is the only immature response Dan can muster, illustrating that the two are now basically operating at the same level of maturity.

This is where the film’s title comes into play. Though heavily steeped in perverse overtones, the relationship between Dan and Drey never develops into full-blown pedophilic inappropriateness – at least not on screen.

Cleverly, the writer/director team only takes the audience to the brink. Repeatedly the viewers are left to decide whether or not they wish to take that wanton, salacious and murky leap.

Scenes are cut so as not to follow their natural progression, characters traits are unexpectedly shifted, and otherwise poetic and revelatory instances – such as toward the end where Dan shaves for the first time of the entire film – are muddied with a hint of dubiety.

This dark film, funny at times, is made for an audience that is okay with a bit of mental turmoil. The questions it poses can only be answered minutes, days, weeks after the house lights have come up and theatergoers exit the cinema.

“Am I to believe they had sexual intercourse?”

I am on day eight and still the question torments me.

Half Nelson
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Additional Information

Half Nelson (2006)
Director Ryan Fleck
Stars Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Curnen
Genre Drama

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