Written by: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Gabriela Curnen
Holding a particular position within our society comes with a general expectation of how one acts. Teachers, for example, help set up the next generation of leaders and therefore expected to have their lives somewhat figured out. This reality clashes with the struggles faced by one particular teacher in Half Nelson as he attempts to be a guiding voice for others as he struggles with his own issues.
Middle-school teacher, Dan (Ryan Gosling) acts as a force of good in his classroom and for the school serving as an engaging educator and coach for the girl’s basketball team. However, he also suffers from an addiction to cocaine, which puts him in a compromising position when he’s found by a student in a bathroom stall after indulging in his addiction.
Rough around the edges with its cinematography and camera movement, Half Nelson looks and very much feels like an intimate look into this man’s life. What he puts out into the world versus what he does behind closed doors has massive differences, and he runs into trouble in this feature when they begin to merge and thus become indistinguishable. It shows a man losing the very fine line of personal and professional from clashing with one another especially because both of the perceptions run opposed to each other. Teaching stands as one of the noblest professions one can take with the generally lower pay and the important service it provides the entire community. On the other hand, drug users who become addicts get seen as a siphon to the community for all the support they need. Two extremes crammed into one man.
This film also allows for another look at the way we view teachers both as symbols for education and then as people. I can recall in my own experiences seeing teachers as not being regular people and I am not the only one who feels that way. It’s what makes student interactions with teachers in the outside world, such as a grocery store, so jarring for pupils to see. Forgetting these individuals exist as human beings like the rest of us feel a bit off, which makes instances where ethical judgments get made about teachers and what they represent. Think of the recent case where a teacher was fired for having an OnlyFans account where they post nude content for patrons. Nothing illegal about this side hustle but because a teacher, who represents the foundation of education, participates in something seen as negative, the educator feels the brunt of their circumstances. Now imagine what this looks like for a teacher indulging in cocaine use and the stakes ultimately get much higher with Dan’s position and livelihood.
The relationship held by Dan and his student, Drey (Shareeka Epps) becomes the very core of the feature. Not only is she the one who sees Dan high in a bathroom stall, but she also seeks a positive relationship with a male figure. With her father in prison and the only other figure being a drug dealer, Dan represents someone positive for her and the educator feels the weight on his shoulders. A particular conversation Dan has with another character exemplifies the pressure put on him where he exclaims how he needs to do something. This particular scene demonstrates he knows he has to do something for his student but he cannot fathom how. He holds the title of teacher, but this does not necessarily mean he knows how to “save” his students from the problems they face. Many teachers can watch that particular scene and relate because it comes as part of the profession and partly what burns many of them out.
Ryan Gosling stars in this feature in one of his more underappreciated lead performances. He carries this film with his struggle and puts together a performance you rarely see him do. It genuinely surprised me when watching it because he did not take this in a heightened or subdued manner. He played it straight, completely honest, and most importantly, believable in the thoughts and actions of this character. It does not feel showy for the sake of it but instead brings a real raw authenticity to this man’s struggles.
Moving in its portrayal and honest with its depiction, Half Nelson demonstrates one of Ryan Gosling’s finest outings as an actor. It shines a light on the perpetual pressure put on teachers to be more than just educators within the classroom and how, at times, it simply can be too much. I love this film’s honesty by not putting anyone here on a pedestal as they deal with real problems that come with harsh consequences.