An inner-city junior high school teacher with a drug habit forms an unlikely friendship with one of his students after she discovers his secret.
Dunne (Gosling) is introduced to the viewer as though this film is one of those “inspirational teachers” changing lives films. The white saviour come to the poor black neighbourhood inspire his students that there is more to life than drugs and money and crime. But this isn’t that sort of a film, because Dunne is the crack addict who is slipping further and further away from functioning in society.
He does his best. Sometimes. But he is an addict, he smokes crack in the locker rooms after a basketball game. He comes to work suffering the effects of the night before. He attempts to rape another teacher. He does bad things.
But life is not all black and white, he isn’t a bad guy. He is just a guy who does some bad things.
Likewise Frank (Mackie) is a drug dealer. He should be the “bad guy” of the film. But he is charismatic, and he helps Drey (Epps) out with money. With lifts home, he looks out for her. Sure, he’d be interested in having her work for him. And I’m sure the character has done worse things than are shown on screen, but he doesn’t seem like a bad guy.
But aren’t all drug dealers badguys?
And it is that question, what makes a person a bad person that seems to be at the heart of this film. It isn’t really ever answered, I suppose it depends how far you fall. But if you continue to strive to be good, is that enough? We all slip, we all sin, it is the trying to do better that should define us.
Or is it? That sort of reasoning, in my opinion, often leaves the victim outside the story. And in Half Nelson Dunne hooks up another teacher a couple of times. It looks like they may be developing a relationship, the have dinner, she spends the night. But then, high, he visits her place at 2.30am and attempts to rape her. She slap/punches him and locks herself in her bedroom. He apologies and leaves. But that isn’t addressed again in the film. We don’t get to see her again, to see how that one action has impacted on her. So where does that leave the viewer and their relationship to Dan, who is our protagonist. Do we still empathise with him? Can we forgive him that act? Do we tell ourselves that it was the drugs and he didn’t know what he was doing?
There is a line in the film, Dan in a conversation with Drey says “One thing doesn’t make a man”, but sometimes how they react to that “one thing” can be what makes them. And sometimes, “one thing” can ruin somebodies life. So yes, people should get to make mistakes and realise that mistake, learn from it, make amends and keep going. But in Half Nelson that attempted rape is never brought up again.
Of course it isn’t a film about learning from your mistakes. It is a series of scenes about living with an addiction. Of the harm it does the addict, and the harm it does everyone around them. And in that it works brilliantly.
It is also a film about the relationship between Dan and Drey, and again, that is brilliantly portrayed. Drey is fantastic, I’d love to see her in more films.
It isn’t a film that ends with resolution or some climactic act. We’re left not knowing what the future holds for either Dan or Drey, we hope for the best, but who knows what life will bring them.