What was first a 19 minute short film called “Gowanus, Brooklyn”, ended up becoming so popular for its powerful and touching narrative that it became an independent feature film. Written and directed by Ryan Fleck, Half Nelson is a drama about a troubled middle school teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) in Brooklyn who forms a friendship with his student Drey (Shareeka Epps). However she discovers that her respected teacher has a drug problem with crack cocaine. With an engaging and elegant story between a student and teacher, Half Nelson is a voyage of addiction, self-destruction and an emotional journey of self-preservation.
Watching Gosling shape and mould the young students minds for their future shows how much pride and ambition he has for his students. As he builds the foundation of his student’s future, he slowly destroys his own. Having the ability to steer the film from a comedy to a tragedy and finishing it off with many heartfelt touching moments. Gosling earned himself an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for the role. Shareeka Epp is also a striking actress who starred in the low budget short film version back in 2004. With a brother in prison for selling drugs and a absent father she becomes a prime target for drug dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie) offering her a job into selling drugs. As Dan protects his student from turning into a world of crime, Drey opens her teacher’s eyes to the hard facts of where his life is going.
Through Half Nelson, Ryan Fleck shows the raw emotional level of addiction with Dan’s characters past and the journey he makes through the film. Ryan Fleck explores and examines the everyday life of someone with a double life. To his family, students and pretty much everyone he knows, Dan may appear that he has it all. However his empty apartment is a fine metaphor for what’s within Dan. A man plagued by uncontrollable cravings, unsuccessful attempts to quit in the past and a continuous thought to work with his addiction rather than against it. In his state of mind he sees himself better now than before, but on another heavy night of racking up another line of cocaine “I used to be so fucked up. I was just out there. You know? But I fucking cleaned up” it’s hard to see if he ever did clean up. Just like most functioning addicts there is always that one moment that they see they’ve lost control. Dan’s moment was his own student discovering him after school hours in the girl’s bathroom getting high. He quickly intellectualizes and rationalizes the problem away and tries to reassure his student. As the film moves on we begin to see more lies and secrets that begin to exact a heavy toll, leaving Dan exhausted, ashamed and alone.
Another focus to Half Nelson is the central theme of loneliness between the student and teacher. Dan seems to always watch his relationships fall apart and we watch him drift through three women in the course of the film. With no male companions apart from shady drug dealers and always being reluctant to see his family, it seems that the only person that keeps him company is his cat and his student Drey. Just like her teacher, Drey also has a central theme of isolation and loneliness. Growing up in a tough neighbourhood with no older brother or father and a mother who works nights and sleeps during the day, Drey’s only friend is a local drug dealer who is slowly steering her down the wrong paths in life.
Half Nelson explores the unfortunate in life, that the stereotypical view of someone taking drugs or dealing them is ultimately a bad people. That in reality someone who takes drugs can still be a kind hearted individual and not a self-indulged monster. Furthermore, that a person who sells drugs is not necessarily a home wrecker but someone who just needed more guidance in life. Fleck shows in Half Nelson that he doesn’t condone the use of drugs or condemn it but shows the journey drugs will take you down if you decide to take that path.