Half Nelson

dir: Ryan Fleck
[img_assist|nid=797|title=Who's got the crack?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=375]
Cracksmoking high school teacher. It’s a four word movie premise that sells itself. No wonder Ryan Gosling, who is definitely becoming an actor to watch out for, garnered a Best Actor nomination for this flick last year. It’s not on the strength of the performance, which is tremendous and irritating at the same time. It’s because the crack addict teacher angle is the purest of Oscar baits.

There’s not really a lot to the story past that. There’s a white teacher in a classroom with predominately African-American and Hispanic students. He tries to teach them history, but in a way that avoids the text books and engages them to look at history through its conflicts in the form of dialectic reasoning: arguments and counter-arguments.

When first we see him we sense that he has something of a rapport with the kids, and engages them in a way that is beyond the perfunctory. At first, we don’t sense that there’s anything particularly wrong with him or with anything else for that matter. We sense that teaching at the school must be difficult, and that he looks a bit rundown, but other than that, it wouldn’t be anything that a good night’s sleep and a shave wouldn’t fix.

When we see him hitting the pipe and smoking that crack, we know that there’s something deeply wrong with this scenario. Generally, flicks like this with idealistic white teachers trying to inspire their minority charges has the teacher trying to give the students hope for a better life away from the drugs and violence of their urban environment. With the teacher on the pipe it becomes much more than just an after-school special.

Dan (Gosling) seems to be lonely, fucked up and compulsive. A visit from an ex-girlfriend Rachel (Tina Holmes) seems to throw him for even more of a loop, which means he needs more crack to deal with everything, or not deal with anything, as the case may be.

Whilst coaching a girl’s basketball team made up of some of his students, he is caught by one of the girl’s smoking crack. Drey (Shareeka Epps) knows exactly what he’s up to, despite her age, since her own brother is in jail for slanging crack in her neighbourhood. For some reason this shared secret forms an unspoken bond between them, as she relates to him as something else apart from a teacher, and he feels more protective of her than is probably appropriate.

He can’t stay off the drugs, but seems to be struggling for some reason with the idea of maybe not doing drugs. Small events tip his resolve over the edge. The death of a cat. Seeing the engagement ring on an ex. The bare loneliness that inspires him to trawl for random hookups with equally aimless women at bars. The desire for drugs also mysteriously seems to compel him to use drugs whenever he can.

He seems to be holding it together for most of the time. You sense that it’s not really hidden from anyone else at his school, especially the other teachers, because he looks like shit and keeps rubbing his face and head compulsively, or seems half-trashed all the time, but because it’s a government school, hell, it doesn’t matter.

I don’t recall if the origin of Dan’s addiction is stated explicitly or investigated. It’s implied, through a visit to his parental units late in the flick, that having drunkard hippies for parents may have set him on this path of self-medication through excessive drug use, but it’s not analysed. Dan’s depression isn’t really investigated, but I guess it doesn’t have to be. It’s enough to know that he is deeply depressed and very messed up.

Drey is a tough as nails girl-child with no naivety about the world she lives in. Her mostly absent mother works double shifts as a paramedic, her brother’s in jail for an indefinite amount of time, and her brother’s boss (Anthony Mackie) seems to be playing the protective big brother role with an eye to making her his new number one employee.

She greets the world mostly with a world-weary resignation that comes from having been let down by most of the people she’s ever looked up to, but she still has some kind of hope that her life might not follow the same path as the people around her. She’s grown up way too fast, and is prepared to do and accept a lot of stuff that kids shouldn’t know about until they’re about 30. But there’s hope.

Probably more hope for her than there is for Dan. Her relationship with Dan is strange. They don’t really talk that much about the ‘stuff’ that defines their lives, they just kind of look after each other to some extent. It’s not founded on anything real or lasting, but they do care for each other, strangely. But the connection is tenuous, and there isn’t really a lot of latitude for drug addict male teachers to pursue friendships with 13-year-old female students.

Even though Dan starts some ways down the downward spiral at film’s beginning, he has further to fall, and little of it has to do with any build up to a climactic scene that usually results in characters either dying or swearing off the good stuff for ever more. Though the flick has no plot, it builds somewhat organically to a place where maybe Drey and Dan, together or apart, can have something to look forward to apart from misery.

Despite the ugliness of his life, Dan remains likable and relatable even as he keeps grinding his life down. Until he gets into a particularly awful situation where sexual violence seems like it’s in the offing, he remains someone who we hope will get his shit together before it’s too late.

There are an abundance of good scenes, some arising through the understated dialogue, others arising from character moments or just facial expressions that sells the story without overdoing it. The soundtrack, oddly for my money, is mostly what you’d call indie hipster rock type stuff, which somewhat goes against the environment of the setting. It does however use the wonderful Feist song Lover’s Spit twice to good effect.

It’s hard to recommend the flick because there’s so little to grab on to and come away with after viewing it. It doesn’t have much to say, nothing much happens and it’s debatable how different the circumstances are at the end for the two main characters compared to the beginning. But there’s a certain enjoyable quality to the story and the way it is all put together that makes it less of a study of addiction than it is a hopeful flick about some people’s messy lives.

7 crack pipes ‘calling me man, shit be call me’ out of 10

“The only constant is change.” – Half Nelson