Contains spoilers for Half Nelson
Peter Bradshaw in Tuesday’s Guardian (here) picks his favourite films about school (and you can too: simply go to www.teachers.tv/movies and do your thang), but very obviously leaves out one of the best (if not the best): Half Nelson. To be honest, I don’t share Bradshaw’s enthusiasm for the genre. However, he believes (rightly, I think) that the school environment lends itself brilliantly to big, significant themes. However, as we’re talking about kids and education here and all the dull worthiness that that can conjure up, the tendency is to make moralising old flap such as Dangerous Minds. As for Freedom Writers and Renaissance Man (which isn’t about school as such, but you get my drift), I’ve done my level best to avoid them. Films about school? No thanks, teach.
So why Half Nelson? Broken Social Scene contribute a hefty wedge of the soundtrack, so I was intrigued as to how the filmmakers were going to use already recorded songs (brilliantly, as it turns out). But the soundtrack is only a small part of what makes this film so good. Ryan Gosling plays Dan, a history teacher working in inner city Brooklyn – so far, so Dangerous Minds, but don’t run away screaming just yet. Dan’s major issue is that he is a major crack and cocaine user, a fact that strongly conflicts with his fiercely liberal ideals. When he is caught smoking crack in the school toilets after a basketball game by Drey (Shareeka Epps), a brilliantly subtle, elliptical relationship between the two develops. If we were in Dangerous Games territory, then this initial discovery would have played out in a rigid, three act structure with much sturm und drang plastered on like so much theatrical make-up. To Ryan Fleck’s and Anna Boden’s credit, they go absolutely nowhere near where you would expect a film like this to go. Even the plot outline on Wikipedia makes things seem a little more schematic and hard edged than it actually is.
The dynamic between Dan and Drey and the characters that enter their respective orbits is what keeps things moving forward here. Drey’s brother is in jail after selling drugs for Frank, a neighbourhood dealer – in his own way, Frank attempts to look out for Drey by recruiting her for his business, a fact that Dan takes exception to. The problem is, as Dan knows only too well, is that his stance is hugely hypocritical. After Dan is fired (a scene that takes place entirely off camera), Drey resolves to turn things round herself, without Dan's help, and most notably, without Frank's.
There’s so much in this film to enjoy (even the cinematography, which is defiantly rough and unfocussed in parts), it’s almost a crime. Sure beats watching Danny DeVito teach Hamlet, that’s for sure.