Ryan Fleck’s ‘Half Nelson’
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Of all the heart-of-gold narratives in cinema it is the prostitute with a heart of gold that has rankled most and fared worst, in terms of insulting our cinematic intelligence. This might simply be because there's something intrinsically naff or, worse still, morally questionable about sugar-coating degradation. Of recent films, there is the execrable Pretty Woman, absurdist fluff of an admittedly benign bent, or the dire Leaving Las Vegas, in which Nicolas Cage rather boringly drinks himself to death while the kind-hearted prostitute, Elisabeth Shue, rather passively enables his death plunge. (Leaving Las Vegas was actually more annoying than Pretty Woman, because it tricked cinema-literate people into thinking there was a real drama buried in there. And the Academy took it seriously, making the film their dose of dark for the year.) Occasionally you find a beautiful exception, such as Werner Herzog's undervalued 1977 masterpiece Stroszek, where Eva Mattes's incandescently sad prostitute Eva is revealed, finally, to have a heart of stone - it's this, in fact, that makes her and her story interesting.
The teacher with a heart of gold has fared somewhat better, perhaps because we've all been schoolchildren, while not all of us have been prostitutes. We can draw more directly on the world of the classroom than the cheap hotel room. There's a long tradition of honourable earnestness stretching back through Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me, Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love, Blackboard Jungle ... on it goes, all the way back to that wonderful gold standard Goodbye, Mr Chips, a nostalgia-soaked film but no less moving for that, and still worth the occasional teary-eyed revisiting.
That many of these films have an inbuilt drift towards hokeyness, which seems to emerge from the inherent sincerity of the set-up, is probably beside the point. We get involved in a drama that asks: How can a dynamic personality make things better? How can force of will shake awake the uninspired and the alienated? As ex-schoolchildren, we can access those long-ago interactions, the teacher-student stand-offs, the endless boredom, what Rilke called "the school's long stream of time and tediousness". And we remember teachers: the good, the bad, the ugly. The extraordinary nasal hair. What else was there to focus our lambent, restless daydreaming on for all those years?
Given the tendency of sincerity to get syrupy I approached Half Nelson, the new American indie release directed by Ryan Fleck (and written by Fleck and Anna Boden), with trepidation. It certainly has all the hallmarks of a teacher-with-a-heart-of-gold film. "Day after day in his shabby Brooklyn classroom," the publicity material announces, "he somehow finds the energy to inspire his 13- and 14-year-olds to examine everything from civil rights to the Civil War with a new enthusiasm." Sounds like something South Park might parody.
It's a relief then that Half Nelson (the title refers to a wrestling hold in which a person is immobilised) is such a pleasant surprise: engaging and elegant, unpredictable and non-didactic, a film which comfortably sits with its own ambiguities and even allows them to go largely unresolved. It's an edgy experience too, with the camera held tightly on everyone, so that we're constantly in an overly intimate - at times claustrophobic - space. But that seems appropriate for this study of souls wishing to be elsewhere.
Ryan Gosling (nominated for an Oscar for this role) is pitch perfect as Dan Dunne, a junior-high teacher at a rundown school. He's something of a rebel among the staff, dishevelled but charming, and in the classroom he keeps the children engaged and challenged. There's just one small problem: he's a crack addict barely keeping his world together. It's this dichotomy that propels the film, as we witness the story of a fractured man for whom the disjunction between public and private morality becomes a chasm.
The relief in dramatic terms is that Dunne, like Eva Mattes's prostitute, doesn't have a heart of gold. He is in fact a hollow shell. "I cleaned up - for the most part," he says, while doing drugs with a prostitute in a seedy motel. But it is the part other than the "most part" that has cleaned him out emotionally. His outer casing, his daylight identity, is a glorious blaze of social engagement, passion and political energy: he can bring these kids alive! At night he fucks himself up so much on the crack pipe that he can barely rouse himself from catatonia.
The 13-year-old student Drey (Shareeka Epps, excellently moody in her first feature role) springs Dunne freebasing in the girls' toilets when everyone has gone home, after a basketball match. It's the safest haven he can think of on school grounds; her very absent father has once again failed to pick her up. From this unlikely intersection a strange and compelling friendship, fraught with complicity and inappropriateness, develops. Drey is old beyond her years. Epps plays her with a beautifully restrained weariness, as if her character's overarching refrain is, Of course all the adults will let you down. Dunne, for all his pretence of instilling the capacity for mature thought in the children, is like a child. ("You're not an asshole. You're just a big baby," his ex-girlfriend tells him in one scene.)
It is this odd, elliptical teacher-student friendship, rather than the tragedy of a fallen man, that is the tender core of Half Nelson, and what sets it apart. Something is going to give, and soon, for both of these characters: Drey has the chance to earn some money delivering drugs for Frank (Anthony Mackie), the eloquent and likeable neighbourhood dealer who seems to be responsible for Drey's brother being in prison; for Dunne on his spiral, meanwhile, the centre is clearly not holding, and he's surely not long for his job. Decisions are going to have to be made. In a sense, both characters are more aware of the other's quandary than their own.
It is Dunne's loneliness that leads him to develop this friendship with Drey. He has no boundaries, no sense of perspective. He's a political radical, but a drug addict - the ultimate conservative, surely, in that an addict tries to maintain at all costs an endlessly consistent emotional state. He tries to teach the students about how change works in society, but he can't effect any change in his own life. "What keeps us from being free?" he asks, in a class about the Chicago riots. Yet he can't fight his own battles. Drey, sadness and outsiderness held so hauntingly in her knowing eyes, has an insider's wisdom that sees all this.
The film doesn't shy away from showing what an unpleasant character Dunne is. He becomes a boor when he's high. In an early encounter with some women in a bar, there seems to be an open, erotic, three-way energy developing. They do lines of coke together; he becomes manic and overbearing; the women lose interest and return to their dancing; he goes home alone to his drugs. Further down the line, the worse Dunne gets, the more maudlin and self-pitying he becomes. Countering this, there are layered in the film ghostly echoes of what he once may have been like, before the drugs began to rattle his rivets loose. When he cooks dinner for a teacher friend, for instance, you see touches of him being expansive, funny, likeable. (You also get a sense of just what a remarkable actor Gosling is, and of the kind of actorly charisma he has that can make a role like this palatable.)
"One thing doesn't make a man," Dunne says, defending his drug use to Drey, now that his secret is out. He's not necessarily right about that, of course: in addiction there can be a tipping point, after which the "one thing" becomes everything there is, and the individual becomes lost in a kind of self-devouring.
It is one of the quiet strengths of this film that it doesn't try to resolve Dunne's journey of devouring - at least, not in the expected Hollywood style. It is possible to imagine three distinct future Dan Dunnes in five years' time, assuming he has lived: he has pulled through, begun to narrow the gap between the life he is leading and the life he ought to have led; or, he is still somehow stumbling along, barely holding his head above water, his life lurching from paycheque to paycheque through forlorn highs and lows; or, he's completely gone, destitute, scab-encrusted, one of the living dead among us. The film allows all three possibilities, without judging.
Nor does Drey, the vehicle of its observation, judge Dunne, much as he alternately worries and infuriates her. She has, in any case, the apparent muteness of adolescence: what could she possibly say to help? And while Half Nelson is perhaps ultimately about Drey's journey to a kind of moral clarity through her proximity to this walking disaster, her teacher, the film itself keeps its moralism muted. This makes it transparent and sparkling and diamond-hard, a small gem.
Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012).