A month ago, we asked what movies made you a man. This man recalls the one that taught him the power in weakness.
Despite my disdain for hyper-intellectualization of what should be personal and deeply emotional experiences, I am guilty of being a pop-culture elitist. I love rock music, but my favorite bands are always the atmospheric and complex ones that other people “don’t get”. Although I’m not really a film buff, my taste in movies typically mirrors those lauded by critics.
The best films, to me, don’t barrage audiences with point-counterpoint “witty” dialogue, fetishistic violence, or impossibly perfect and steamy lovemaking. That stuff, while occasionally enjoyable, displays a patronizing compulsion on the part of disconnected studio heads and producers to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Put simply, I don’t turn to movies to escape – I use Adult Swim shows and punk rock for that (and am more than content to share that with maybe a handful of my friends).
Instead, I need films to show me real life as someone like me would want to live it – still a fiction, but one that’s closer to reach than a space-age future or a sun-stroked antiquity. I know it’s a delusion of some kind – even the most realistic performances are still performances – but it’s a rather powerful one that allows me to invest myself fully in the films I love. In keeping with those cinematic preferences, my favorite male protagonists are the ones who exhibit a complicated and fragile masculinity whose triumph over adversity comes when they let go of their pretensions and succumb to a total vulnerability – typically with the help of an infinitely patient and worldly female protagonist.
“Half Nelson” checks off those boxes better than most indie movies could ever hope. The 2006 film features the comically gorgeous Ryan Gosling in what might be his least sexy (yet most compelling) role to date. His portrayal of Dan Dunne, an inner-city schoolteacher and relapsed addict, earned him his only Oscar nomination to date for Best Actor – the kind of throwaway nomination that the Academy gives an understated indie film performance when everybody knows the award is going to someone else.
Gosling’s Dan challenges his predominantly-black adolescent students with dialectics-laced lessons. Beneath his classroom composure and anti-establishment charisma, he harbors an ongoing substance abuse problem. He forms a tenuous friendship with one of his students, Drey (played by a sixteen-year-old Shareeka Epps) after she catches him freebasing cocaine. Drey, for her part, is balancing schoolwork a chaotic home life with an overworked mother and a brother serving time for drug dealing. Dan attempts to steer Drey away from Anthony Mackie’s Frank, a dealer who Drey’s brother ran for. Ultimately (spoiler alert), it’s Drey who pulls Dan out of the gauntlet and tries to change his life around.
When I first saw it, “Half Nelson” hit me on every emotional level— thanks to a combination of qualities that fed into my blooming artistic and intellectual curiosity. I was 16 years old, nursing a burgeoning interest in indie cinema and music that corresponded with a rise in those mediums’ audiences. But besides that, I was also deeply interested in the inner city as terrain for personal transformation – I was on a social justice track that would eventually led me to studying social work graduate school, and I was obsessed with anything that felt like the hard-edged urban life in which I wanted to invest myself.
“Half Nelson” indulged all of that: atmospheric and fragmented Broken Social Scene songs added urgency and atmosphere to Gosling’s all-night benders, and the lead actors’ restrained performances made me feel right at the center of situations that were happening every day.
But even more powerful than the soundtrack or any of the socio-cultural context was Gosling’s portrayal of Dan, which painted a complex and authentically problematic kind of masculinity. Even after Drey catches him getting high, he’s reluctant to talk about his problems with her. Their friendship stays fairly superficial – exchanging stupid jokes, cooking meals together — and Dan is almost successful at brushing her off until Frank offers Drey the chance to make money selling drugs.
One of the film’s strongest scenes has Dan confronting Frank over his relationship with Drey; although Dan tries to take the high road, Frank knows enough to call out a drug abuser’s hypocrisy. He even calls Dan out on white privilege, but Dan cannot sustain his paternalistic impulses and brokenly screams “I don’t know!” to a surprisingly (if falsely) sympathetic Frank. Throughout the film, it’s clear that Dan leans on Drey as much as Drey looks to her teacher as a role model. This kind of mutual dependence proves transformative for both characters in ways that shatter their generational, racial, and gender divisions.
There are, of course, numerous problems with this film that I, at the age of 16, could not identify. Visually, Half Nelson is stunning, so it falls victim to the art house film curse of romanticizing problematic things (addiction, crime) through a surreal and ethereal presentation. Additionally, even if the film subverts a lot of white-savior-of-black-youth issues inherent to movies set in the inner city (Dangerous Minds is maybe the best example of this kind of patronizing attitude) by having Dan depend so much on Drey, the way that Drey saves Dan (who, despite how much screen time Shareeka Epps gets, is still very much the central character) makes it seem like a cross-racial friendship can transcend a massive cultural divide and save even the most troubled white men.
What seemed so authentic to teenage wannabe-Dan-Dunne me ended up being some form of sugar coating. Teachers like Dan tend to lose their jobs very early on for not teaching to standardized tests, and students like Drey rarely develop those kinds of close-knit transformative friendships with teachers. At 16, I could have been so easily fooled, and I now take everything I loved about this movie with a grain of salt.
With all of this in mind, however, Half Nelson is still a wonderful portrayal of very serious issues that treats said topics with more nuance and realistic interaction then many urban dramas could even hope. In it, Gosling offers a portrayal of masculinity far more interesting than his hunky public image would have anyone believe.
Photo: Adam Bell, ThinkFilm