Half Nelson

 
(i)

 

Indie inner-city drama with drug-addict teacher.
  • Review Date: March 2, 2007
  • Rated: R
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 2006
  • Running Time: 107 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

Obviously this is a story about good role models who have bad sides, exemplified by Danny, the young teacher who really cares, but is also really messed up on drugs a lot of the time. His fellow administrators seem jaded and apathetic, though they're "straight." The student girl Drey is no angel, but she's smart enough to shy away from violence and destructive lifestyles. A drug dealer flaunts his easy-money earnings.

Violence

The main character is struck in the face while nearly committing rape.

Sex

A montage-y tangle of limbs in a lyrical sex scene between Daniel and another teacher he takes as a lover. Later in a drug-fueled state he nearly rapes her. Scantily dressed females in drug dens and music-club environments.

Language

Much swearing, in arguments, street talk, and during heated school basketball games (Coach Dunne gets penalized for calling someone an asshole).

Consumerism

Some popular songs on the soundtrack.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

The main character is a drug-addict teacher who claims he can keep it under control, and we get glimpses of langorous crack-smoking parties and drinking in bars.

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?

QUALITY
 

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.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about ways this movie goes against clichĂ©s, 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.

Movie details

Theatrical release date:August 11, 2006
DVD release date:February 16, 2007
Cast:Anthony Mackie, Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps
Director:Ryan Fleck
Studio:Sony Pictures
Genre:Drama
Run time:107 minutes
MPAA rating:R
MPAA explanation:drug content throughout, language and some sexuality.

This review of Half Nelson was written by

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Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Adult Written byPollyRoger April 9, 2008
 

Great indie movie

This is one of those movies that I could not get out of my head for days. It was a great, realistic story of a drug-addicted teacher who balances his love and concern for his students with his addiction. It's an accurate portrayal of human nature, and it conveys the fact that just because a person does something wrong, it doesn't make them a bad person. The movie was appropriately rated R. There were around 30 f-words, and numerous other profanities throughout. The drug content was detailed. We see a couple having sex, but nothing in detail, and it's shown in short clips, not the whole seen at once. Danny does almost rape his girlfriend, but it's nothing detailed, and nothing more than would be shown on some TV shows. Overall, I think this is a good movie for adults. Definitely not for kids.
Teen, 16 years old Written byRainy Day October 3, 2010
 

Inspiring...

"Half Nelson" is not a movie about drugs. It is rather, a meditation on overcoming addiction, as well as a very human portrait of unlikely friendship. Ryan Gosling gives the performance of a lifetime as the washed-up Dan, a drug-addicted teacher who's empathetic and warm and fragile at the same time. Shareeka Epps, the twelve-year-old black student who befriends Dan, is also terrific as the female lead. But the reason the movie shines is because first-time directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have infused a contemporary work that is gritty and evocative with the message that hope is never far away. (There are moments of inappropriate language, some sexuality, as well as numerous shots of cocaine inhalation and drug use, but they can easily be fast-forwarded.) Overall, Half Nelson is an indie film that is beautiful and relatively unknown, but still can be experienced by teens and adults for the first time.
What other families should know
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Great messages

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