Screenwriter and director Ryan Fleck expanded his award-winning short film--Gowanus, Brooklyn-- into the 2007 feature-length drama, Half-Nelson.  The central character of the film is Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) an eighth-grade history teacher struggling to make the subject relevant to his students at a troubled school in the heart of poverty-stricken, crime-ridden Brooklyn.  His creativity in the classroom and his commitment to the students, predominately African-American and Latino teens, is real, without pretense or condescension.  Rather than relying on canned curricula and traditional methodologies such as recounting battles and memorizing dates, he tries to inspire his students with the ideology of Karl Marx, the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the film footage of Mario Savio, student leader of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s.

However, Dan's idealism and energy begin to wane, and he easily justifies anesthetizing himself in order to escape his growing recognition that he will likely make little or no difference in the world.  As his drug use intensifies, Dan's connections with friends, family, colleagues, and eventually, students completely unravel.  But his downward spiral into addiction is intertwined with and counterpointed by a complex and subtle relationship that develops between him and thirteen-year old, Drey (Shareeka Epps) when she discovers her teacher, Mr. Dunne, slumped nearly unconscious in the bathroom stall of the school gym, a crack pipe still in his hand.  


There are two major metaphors structuring this grim and powerful film, which is essentially about drug culture and drug addiction.  The first is dialectics, a way of theorizing historical and cultural change, which Dan Dunne uses to reach his indifferent and impoverished students.  However, while his demonstrations and depictions of the powerful collision of two opposing forces throughout American history--black and white, rich and poor, dominant and oppressed--are only occasionally effective in the classroom, that collision is always dramatically enacted outside of it.

In the streets, the only real way to get ahead is not by resisting the machine but by colluding with the drug dealer who owns the neighborhood.  Drey has already lost a brother to prison and is herself being groomed to take his place as a runner.  An absent father and an exhausted mother who works double shifts as an EMT has made the young girl self-reliant and streetwise, but she is also vulnerable because of loneliness and age. 

The second metaphor is captured in the title of the film, Half-Nelson, a grappling hold in wrestling that is executed from the backside of the opponent using one hand.  Addiction is, indeed, pinning Dan Dunne to the mat, but he is not yet completely incapacitated by it.  Both Drey and Dan are at a crossroads in their respective lives:   Drey is searching for moral guidance and emotional connection while Dan must find a way to kick the habits of disillusionment and rationalization.  


The film was based on the short, Gowanus, Brooklyn, which won an award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.  Half-Nelson was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, and Ryan Gosling was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.  He was twenty-five at the time of filming.  Shareeka Epps won several acting awards for her acting in the film. The film was shot in twenty-three days, and except for a short sequence of static shots in Dan Dunne's apartment, it was shot entirely with a hand-held camera. 

Primary Source

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (DVD)