If Half Nelson had merely been a great film about school, I would have left the theater happy. Director Ryan Fleck shows viewers several unglamorous aspects of teacher life: overstuffed classrooms, boneheaded cheaters, dingy apartments that are the only affordable living spaces for young and single teachers, and burnt-out veterans in the staff lounge whose only conversational gambits consist of reading strange articles from the local paper and praying for summer. But Half Nelson is more than a sharp and smart look at American education. In its refusal to offer easy answers to difficult problems and its unconditional love for its characters, Half Nelson is one of the few American dramas to build on the films of John Cassavetes.
Film critics who can't seem to agree on anything seem to agree that the dozen or so independent films Cassavetes made between 1960 and 1984 are landmarks of American filmmaking. Cassavetes' characters leap headfirst into raw, messy emotional brawls with each other; the films often consist of their attempts to scream, kick, punch, drink, laugh, or even hug their way out. At their best, films like Shadows, Opening Night, and A Woman Under the Influence are exhausting but necessary struggles whose galvanizing scenes and dead patches both gain power and meaning in retrospect. And even at their worst, the films are dogged, passionate attempts to find decency in all human beings. No other filmmaker I know left behind such a legacy.
Fleck's film, which depicts the complicated friendship between white, crack-addicted junior-high history teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) and his African-American student Drey (Shareeka Epps), deepens that legacy. By abandoning such ridiculous absolutes as "good guys" and "bad guys," the film is free to explore how morally compromised people -- and really, what other kind are there? -- help each other endure. The hand-held camerawork and uncomfortable close-ups keep each character's internal struggles at the forefront of each scene. Anna Boden's rigorous script is very fine, but this is an actor's film. And the main actors here are magnificent. The wry, sad-eyed Gosling has already won much praise for his performance, but Epps' guarded, intelligent teenager and Anthony Mackie's pragmatic drug dealer are as good, if not better.
Important side note: I am a high school teacher. And if the idea of a functional, drug-addicted educator sounds fanciful, such people do exist. Thankfully, they are rare; out of hundreds of colleagues, I have worked with only two or three of them. But these teachers, whose magnetism and charisma can inspire cultish devotion from their students, give so much of themselves in the classroom because their personal lives teeter on the verge of collapse. One of the many points Half Nelson makes is that it is exceedingly dangerous for teachers to rely on students for emotional support and purpose. But this insight is replaced by a larger, lingering question: How does a person find purpose in the world, much less make a difference in it? The lovely open-ended closing shot of this lovely film hints at an embrace of simple virtues -- forgiveness, tolerance -- that would benefit our schools and our film culture, if not our world.