Ryan Fleck’s debut feature “Half Nelson” is an angular compound of five distinct genealogies in American cinema: the civil rights era neorealist “problem films” such as Shirley Clarke’s “The Cool World,” the contemporary urban pastorals of Jim McKay’s “Our Song,” threnodies for ‘60s radicalism like Sidney Lumet’s “Running on Empty,” hell-and-back addiction diaries like Gary Winick’s “Sweet Nothings,” and, despite his avowed wish to dodge it, the soppy ghetto inspirational of Wes Craven’s “Music of the Heart.”
In a mostly black working-class corner of Brooklyn, history teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), a baby-faced white hipster, does his best to flout the received curriculum and impart critical precepts to a class of improbably docile eighth graders. He feigns obeisance every time the principal tears him a new one, outwardly righteous but privately beset by demons. Dunne takes special interest in Drey (Shareeka Epps), a student who stands apart with thoughtful, coiled reserve. Doubling as girls’ basketball coach, he’s caught by Drey after a match one evening in the stall of a locker-room toilet, sucking on a well-used crack pipe and sliding into a bummer trip on being exposed.
With an older brother incarcerated on drug charges, Drey is only faintly surprised by Dunne’s habit. Once conspiratorially bonded, he begins driving her home at every chance, where mom (Karen Chilton), a mirthless EMT grunt, is rarely found between double shifts; her no-’count dad has simply vanished. Drey’s family stays tenuously afloat with a little extra from Frank (Anthony Mackie), the neighborhood dealer for whom her brother took the fall. Driven in part by a different species of guilt than Dunne’s, Frank vies with him for surrogacy over Drey, one holding forth the promise of easy money, the other appealing to her nobler aspirations, however ill-defined.
Beyond his cultivation of Drey, Dunne walks the walk through classroom soliloquies espousing a pidgin version of Hegelian dialectics, meeting the urban hum with Beat lassitude, and dramatic entrances in the faculty lounge looking as though he’d squeezed in a Vice magazine shoot over lunch—vintage threads on spavined frame, patchy whiskers, shades, and an Old Glory band-aid on his lower lip. He dallies with a mousy fellow teacher, Isabel (Monique Gabriela Curnen), but when his mousier ex-girlfriend Rachel (Tina Holmes) swings through town and breaks the news of her engagement, he dives deeper into self-pity, trying to freebase the pain away.
Contrary to rumors of obsolescence, Norman Mailer’s white negro is alive, well, and firmly ensconced across the East River. Epitomizing the type, Dunne makes some sassy jabs at “the dozens” with the students, and he’s down enough to waltz into a back-street dealer’s den, toting a stray cat, no less. When Drey gets locked out of her house one afternoon and takes shelter at Dunne’s fleapit, she scans the shelves and asks, “Why you got so many books about black people?” And can she borrow his paperback of “Soul on Ice?” If Drey tucks into Eldridge Cleaver’s notorious prison memoir, she’ll come across such teachable moments as serial gouts of homophobic venom and the self-confessed rapist’s reflections on stalking his “prey,” black and white women alike.
The rape association is not random, since Dunne also displays a capacity for sexual violence. One night Dunne rings Isabel’s buzzer at 2:30 a.m., following a royal binge. Disoriented and trying warily to soothe the intruder, she’s pinned to a couch as he starts to force himself on her, relenting only when she manages to cuff him on the mouth, then swiftly lock herself in the bedroom. The staging implies that had she not the physical strength to defend herself she would likely have been raped. Should this change our response to Dunne’s raffish charisma? Has this ever happened before? How might it inform our sense of his ex-girlfriend’s estrangement?
And what does it mean in relation to Drey? Seen through Dunne’s idealizing eyes, she’s every woman—angel of mercy, comforting him as he’s crashed on a toilet floor; solemn confidante, rewarded with covert winks in the classroom; surrogate daughter, whom he possessively chauffeurs; beacon of redemption, as when she stumbles into a motel-room orgy where coach is slumped in the bathroom, again; and even jailbait siren. At a school dance, coach rocks his mambo turn patterns on Drey, then gyrates against her for a few moments, stupefying the other teens and triggering a subsequent spat of mild epithets: he’s an “asshole,” she’s a “bitch.”
At odd intervals, Fleck inserts direct-to-camera close-ups of star students posed before a chalkboard, reciting overviews of a class assignment illustrated with mysteriously obtained archival footage. These reference the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the 1971 Attica prison uprising and massacre, the 1978 assassination of gay politician Harvey Milk, and the 1973 U.S.-backed coup that installed Pinochet’s terror in Chile. These truth-to-power nuggets are meant to vindicate Dunne’s pedagogy, addressed in narrative time, perhaps, to a panel reviewing his tenure; they register more immediately as hectoring tangents. At another point Dunne screens his own clip, of an unidentified Mario Savio shouting on the Berkeley campus amid the ’60s student tumult.
The autobiographical gesture—Fleck is a Berkeley native—points to one source of Dunne’s corrosive weltschmerz. He’s foredoomed to self-abasement, it would seem, by his ’60s-firebrand parents, who live nearby in a more genteel neck of Brooklyn. So total is their lefty aura that their grandfolks might have been Wobblies and great-grandparents Bundists. In scenes of a family dinner, Fleck derisively portrays them as gargoyles, mom glimpsed sidelong scarfing food off a spatula and dad relaxing into post-liberal racial jest, asking Dan what it’s like at the “zoo.” Fleck’s alter ego mocks our present distance from their activist heyday, crooning to mom, “You stopped the war.”
Fleck knows it’s too facile to blame the folks, though. Could the repressed trauma be guilt at his own abandonment of the social? For all of Dunne’s spacious rhetoric about “the machine,” i.e. the social architecture of injustice and inequality, the credo we’re left with is saving one student at a time. The missionary overtones require little comment, but the upshot is that in narrowing the horizon of progressive transformation to individualized consciousness-raising, the prospects for change achievable by organized communities, campaigns, and movements—by collective action rather than heroic, romantically misunderstood individuals—are tacitly foreclosed.