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Oscar®Oscar® Nominee for Best Actor in a Leading Role—Ryan Gosling

Movie Review

Half Nelson

MPAA Rating: R for drug content throughout, language and some sexuality

Reviewed by: Misty Wagner

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Primary Audience:
1 hr. 44 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
August 11, 2006
DVD release: February 12, 2007
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Relevant Issues
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drug addiction

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Featuring: Ryan Gosling (“The Believer” / “Stay” / “The United States of Leland”), Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Curnen, Karen Chilton
Director: Ryan Fleck
Producer: Anna Boden, Lynette Howell, Rosanne Korenberg, Alex Orlovsky, Jamie Patricof
Distributor: ThinkFilm

“Half Nelson” is the story of Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), a junior high school history teacher and basketball coach. Dan’s story is one of addiction and hope.

Passionately, Dan Dunne teaches and inspires the middle school kids in his class. He gets down and relates to them in a way that obviously connects. Being a white teacher in this inner city Brooklyn school seems a difficult enough obstacle. Somehow, though he manages to reach them with his enthusiastic discussions on things like Civil Rights and challenging them to boldly confront and explore change on every level, foremost, thinking for themselves. The audience is there to witness his edgy teaching style and is easily won over to this character who struggles with a drug addiction behind closed doors—controling every aspect of his life, making it increasingly dark and more desperate.

It was very convicting for me, a viewer, to see how extremely different the two sides of Dan were. As a teacher, he is colorful and vibrant about encouraging students to think for themselves and act on what they believe. However, outside of the classroom he is passive and controlled—by drugs and an apparent self image that he is worth nothing and a waste of breath.

When one of his students, Shey (the amazing and captivating newcomer Shareeka Epps), witnesses Dan’s drug use, we are then made aware of Shey’s background. The younger sister of a now imprisioned drug dealer, abandoned by her dead-beat-dad and left alone due to her overstressed and overworked single mom… The only way the family seems to survive is by the financial care and mentoring of Frank, the pusher who Shey’s brother Mikey had worked for… As the story develops we learn that Frank is also Dan’s dealer…

A bond forms between Shey and Dan as she keeps his secret and he learns more about her life. They seem to each be inspired, in some way, to look out for and protect one another. It’s a heartwarming and sad relationship—One that we, as viewers, tend to flip flop between feelings of sickness and grattitude. Sick because we are taught to believe that Dan, as her teacher and adult, should “grow up” and change… Stop the cycle. Grateful because, as her life seems to worsen, we see him there, always. Even though he is his own sort of mess, he is constant for her and truly does care.

The story content is uncomfortable. Drug addiction isn’t pretty… The society that drug trafficing resides in, is depressing and desperate. The idea that a child who has been forced to grow up way to fast could live such a life and her only source of hope come from a drug addicted and therefore incredibly selfish teacher—is tragic…

The math of the scenario lends little optimism to the idea that there could be hope within this story, but I believe their is. Not in the plastic, candy-coated sense we seem to crave from “entertainment”… But it’s there. This film manages to show us that we can’t confine or dictate how hope or redemtion will come. Who are we to limit the power of God? Though this movie doesn’t credit God for anything, it doesn’t romance life without Him either. It paints a real image, about real life and tragically real scenarios…

The story is redemptive in a realistic light… As much as we would like to see their lives change and become something clean and beautiful, that isn’t exactly reality. This story wasn’t made to end in a neatly tied bow. Its focus, I believe, was to enlighten, educate and convict us while also giving us just enough entertainment to make us feel touched on every level…

Filmed with raw cinimatograghy and realistically grungy asthetics, the films plays out, at times, like a documentary. “Half Nelson” works as a film, on every level. It’s successful as a portrayal of drug addiction. It could easily be educating, raising awareness with its practical storytelling…

It’s entertaining with the clever script and occasional humor during it’s very uncomfortable storyline. The potrayal of Dan, in my opinion, is the pinnacle of Gosling’s career. The challenge of playing a character who is such a light to his students and yet lives in such darkness, had to of been a difficult one but Ryan Gosling has met the challenge and exceeded it incredibly.

Violence: Minor / Profanity: Heavy / Sex/Nudity: Moderate

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Comments below:
Positive—I totally liked the movie. I’ve worksed with junkies in past years and the portrayal is really very realistic and very saddening, too. And yes it is true rehab works for some but not all, not even Christian rehab. And hey, their story is not finished. Maybe they are out there on your path and some day God will use you to show them His love and purpose. I’ve been a friend to a junkie and it’s hard but in the end it was worth it. Maybe this movie is not for everyone, but to me it was kind of a flashback. A good one, at that.
My Ratings: Average / 4
—R. Petrova, age 30
Positive—I agree with the reviewer that the content is uncomfortable, however, I quite enjoyed this movie. Drugs are real. Addiction is real. Strongholds are real. While the content is offensive, the scenarios portrayed are not a fairy tail. The sting of sin is incredibly evident in this film. Both Dan and Drey’s struggle with sin should serve as a reminder that we should never underestimate the power of sin and where it can take us. The situation with Drey and Frank (her drug dealing friend), is an incredible portrayal for the human longing for love and acceptance. She shows us how easy it is to be lead astray when the face of the enemy is so cunning and seemingly good, even though the enemy is a sheep in wolves clothing. The story also serves the audience well in the fact that it gives you a glimpse into Dan’s past and his family situation. It’s obvious that Dan has not had the family model that would challenge him to analyze his behavior and habits. The source of that challenge comes from his relationship with Drey, which is the sole motivating factor for him to change. Although the audience never observes the fruits of this desire, we are treated with a beautiful glimpse of Drey’s expression of love for her teacher and Dan’s acceptance of accountability.

“Half Nelson” serves as a movie that reminds us that Christ did not come for the healthy, but for the sick. God’s grace and mercy should never be withheld from the blind. Especially the blind who make decisions that serve as a catalyst for their own blindness. It reminds us that we as followers of Christ are needed in these dire situations, and it has awakened my spirit to continue to be the hands and feet of Christ in a desperate and dying world. Please consider only if you can handle offensive subject matter.
My Ratings: Offensive / 4
—Russ, age 27
Negative—I found the film very offensive because the main character the teacher was a heavy drug user. He was a very poor role model for his students. He befriended a student because she caught him wasted after drug use, and helped him out of the girl’s locker room. In a far fetched way, he tried to shield her from his drug supplier that was courting her to sell drugs for him. I kept waiting on the movie to get better. It was one drug scene after another. One really bad drug scene where there were several women involved, and the student delivers the teacher more drugs. Their was a slight romantic plot to the movie. The teacher had recently broke up with a lady that he obviously cared about because of his drug use. This movie was a waste of good time, and I regretted watching it.
My Ratings: Very Offensive / 1½
—Kathy, age 42
Negative—I could not find any redeeming value in this movie whatsoever. I watch movies like this and wonder 'what was that?'. Plot line that makes no sense, the movie begins at one point and ends at another that really has no purpose whatsoever. Every bit of immorality imaginable is contained in the film from glorification of drug use to lying to, well too many to list. I’ve seen better acting in high school plays. Just a mish mash of scenes that are disconnected and have no meaning, not to mention that they try to sell this as reality when it couldn’t be farther from it. No teacher in the world would be able to get away with the actions depicted in this film. Utter nonsense from top to bottom. This is what I get for watching a film not previously reveiwed. Do not waste your money, not even by renting the DVD. If this is what the world has truly come to, then we are all indeed in deep trouble.
My Ratings: Extremely Offensive / 3
—Tom Reed, age 53
Negative—I watched this movie because I like movies where you can empathize with the main character and root for them to overcome their circumstances. I was really dissapointed with this film because aside from a brief montage of Ryan Gosling's character doing pushups and washing dishes as an attempt to get his act together, he showed no real interest in changing his ways. I also disagree with the reviewer’s opinion of the job he did as a teacher. Every time we see him in class he is encouraging rebellious attitudes. He is not encouraging these kids to think for themselves, but is in actuality injecting his own feelings about goverment and authority while making it appear as though he is encouraging independent thought. The film has a running theme where the children give history reports that have a decidedly left-wing take to them.

On a side note, it seems like the majority of the students are completly bored in his class as he talks over their heads a good part of the time in an attempt the seem intellectual (in the way that drunks think they are being deep and philosophical but to everyone else they are just babbling).

I also disagree with the description of the relationship between the teacher and the young 13 year old student. I did not see it as heartwarming but very innapropriate and unsettling. In one scene, at a school dance he begins dancing suggestively with her and she is clearly uncomfortable with it, causing her to accept a ride home with the drug dealer rather than be alone with him. Later in the movie, he shows up drunk at a teacher’s house that he had a few dates with at 2:30 in the morning and attempts to rape her.

She is able to fight him off, and so he suffers no consequences other than a fat lip. And did I mentioin that his cat dies… presumably because of neglect? As I mentioned at the beginning, I love to root for the underdog to overcome, but I found little to like about the main character. This is one of thoses movies that made me wish I had not wasted 2 hours of my life watching it… but the good thing is that I can warn viewers who are considering this movie to think again.
My Ratings: Offensive / 2
—Jennifer, age 30
Comments from young people
Positive—Before I decided to watch this film, I heard from many people that the camera angle was bad, and that it progressed slowly, etc., so I went into it with a “will the movie really suck?” attitude. What I got blew me away. The fact that they could pull a movie that can invoke tears, and a realization of the hardships of an addiction itself WITHOUT the use of music is amazing. Sure the content is bad, but honestly, you’ll find as much (if not worse) in a high-school hallway.

Does this make it right? Of course not. Does it make it more personable then if everyone were to run around with Bibles in their hand preaching? Yes. When you look at the whole picture, you can stereotype it into drugs and addiction, but it is a personable film that anyone can relate to. It also shows humility, in the sense that everyone needs help sometime in their life, no matter who you are. Even though it did have a sex-scene (but it was nothing worse then what was in The Illusionist and You, Me, and Dupree) I highly recommend this movie, even though it is hard to find, if you want a film that will make you think.
My Ratings: Offensive / 4½
—Matt, age 14