Half Nelson Review

  • 4/5
Half Nelson

Teachers are often said to hold the most humanitarian job the world has to offer. Indeed, they are in no small part responsible for raising the humans of tomorrow and teaching them the skills they need to survive life as they know it.

Sadly, it's also a profession that is taken for granted. In reality, it's a job that is, in most cases, unglamorous and underpaid.

But these teachers still do it. They bear all the troubles they face for the greater good of the world. In essence, they are the most selfless, caring and concerned people in the world. For their efforts alone, they are nearly faultless - they take troubled students on and set them on the right path.

Half Nelson contends with that notion however. Not with contending how selfless and draining the profession is, but with how teacher's aren't these faultless angelic creatures - they're humans, and as with any human, they have faults.

It also tries to depict the teacher-student dynamic as something of a dialogue rather than a monologue. It's a dynamic that is mutually affecting.

The film follows Dan (Ryan Gosling)- who on the surface may seem like the prototypical selfless instructor working in a lower income public school. He's a white man who tries to make class as engaging and relevant to his multi-racial class with a youthful connect that appears to be truly authentic - something that many teachers try but few master. Dan is that one teacher who the kids don't mind, dare I say like.

The film also focuses on Drey - a young, talented girl with some behavioural issues that stem from home - something that Dan tries to address and correct as any good teacher tries to do.

This sounds like the plot of every inspirational teacher-student drama Hollywood tries to plug.

But it's not.

Dan just happens to be a drug addict.

Here, the student is as instrumental in positively changing the teacher's life as the teacher is for the student's.

Through an unsettling encounter at the bathroom post a basketball game, Drey learns of Dan's issue, and the two build on that - not in an active, sappy sequence of events where they both try to help each other - they're not friends - they're teacher and student, there are boundaries they have to respect.

But they do impact each other in just the way they both want to, without ever overtly trying to. It's this understated, realistic beauty in the film's approach to teacher- student relations that makes this so special.

In what is one of Ryan Gosling's finest performances to date, creators Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden craft what is probably one of cinema's finest critiques on the notion of humans being viewed in binaries.

Half Nelson tries to show us as individuals - each with our own demons - trying just as hard as next one to live life to the best of our capacities.