What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this is no "hero white teacher saves the poor minority students" uplifter. Instead it's far more complex and challenging, because the white hero teacher, for all his good intentions, is also a drug user, a slave to narcotics on the streets, and conflicted about his job. There is much raw language; some sex, including a scene that mixes sex with violence; and the depiction of a strung-out addict. And the "straight" teachers in the school are jaded and calloused. The kids, especially the girl who learns Mr. Dunne's secret, seem less at-risk than he does. In class, Dunne's (unauthorized) history lessons come from a sharply left-wing stance, with reports on U.S. violations of law and human rights, at home and abroad.
What's the story?
Daniel Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a young man considered the "cool" teacher by the mostly minority kids in his Brooklyn-area public school. He coaches them at basketball, uses innovative teaching methods, and covers important social and political topics absent from the stale learning plans of the other teachers (the principal does not approve). But Daniel is very troubled. A stalled writer -- who may not have even wanted to teach in the first place -- he's a drug addict struggling with his ex-girlfriend's plans to marry. While smoking crack in the school's girls' restroom, he's discovered by his student Drey (Shareeka Epps). She keeps his secret, but the knowledge and guilt forms a sort of bond between them. Daniel -- no stranger to the narcotics-ridden districts -- tries to steer the fatherless Drey away from the influence of her neighbor Frank (Anthony Mackie), a small-time dealer. But it's not easy to take the moral high ground when Dunne buys from the same pusher.
Is it any good?
While uplifting schoolroom dramas like Freedom Writers, Coach Carter, Stand and Deliver, and Lean on Me are frequent and mainstream, the indie-made HALF NELSON is something completely different; a non-clichéd story about a troubled teacher in an inner-city school and his healing relationship with a young black student -- not the other way around. Even Frank is written on a smarter level than you'd expect, not a traditional villain.
Half Nelson is a film of shaded characterizations by excellent performers, and the plotline is mostly loose inferences and small moments, not big ones. As opposed to other "'hood" films, there's no gunfire, and potential violent confrontations don't go the expected route. The film also doesn't have a very strong ending (though it's clear the two main characters have turned corners in their lives). Indie filmmaking hallmarks like shaky camera movements and improv may not be everyone's cup of tea, but as discussion material, Half Nelson offers a lot more. It's also noteworthy as a serious feature with a young African-American female in a key role. Sadly, this remains rare in movies.
Explore, discuss, enjoy
Families can talk about ways this movie goes against clichés, presenting a very clearly flawed main character in the normally idealized role of a teacher-mentor. Who do you think is a healthier person, Dan Dunne or Drey? Dunne's students do seem to be learning from him, but do you really think he should have a job as an educator? What do you think will happen to him? Kids and grownups can talk about the real-life teachers they've admired, and whether any of them seemed like the sorts of characters we see presented onscreen, in Half Nelson or more typical blackboard-jungle dramas.