A half nelson is a wrestling move in which the arm is slipped under opponent’s and the hand is placed against the neck, and the person against whom it’s used is all incapacitated. Half Nelson, the FIPRESCI jury’s choice for best narrative feature at the San Francisco Film Festival, is a film about the stranglehold of addiction, but at the same time very much more.
Just as the city of San Francisco was celebrating the 100th anniversary of its most catastrophic event (the 1906 earthquake), SIFF offered up a film in which history was front and center, but used in a way that not only illuminates the modern condition, but which transcends issues of race, color, economics and politics — all of which director Ryan Fleck mixes into a film that confounds optimism, at the same time it breathes hope into the urban drama.
Ryan Gosling stars as Dan, a Brooklyn public schoolteacher in a tailspin of cocaine addition; Shareeka Epps, one of the great revelations among teenage actresses currently on screen, is Drey, a student with whom Dan forms a fast, somewhat irony-fueled friendship and whom he tries to protect, even as he fails to protect himself. Both are unserved by the system; Dan’s teaching methods, which we see as more than effective, are stymied by the administration. Any variance from the norm, be it cultural, educational or chemical, is dangerous, largely because American history — as we see via the occasional recitation/explanation of an event by one of Drey’s classmates — is insane. And calibrated to reject all but the status quo.
Gosling’s performance is first-rate, Epps is off the charts, and Anthony Mackie, as Drey’s mother’s ex Frank, completes the triptych of misfits (and ace performances) as a neighborhood drug dealer who knows Dan’s habits. As does Drey: It’s when she discovers him, after hours, with a crack pipe in the school locker room (Dan also coaches girl’s basketball) that their bond is set. And it’s a relationship in defiance of history: When Frank and Dan clash over Drey, it’s not that they don’t have her best interests at heart, but because history has taught them not to trust each other.
Besides the classroom recitations (on the Attica prison riot, the overthrow of Salvador Allende, the desegregation case of Brown vs. Board of Education), Fleck and co-screenwriter Anna Boden offer up various devices for re-examining the legacy of the past: Dan and a fellow teacher he dates (Monique Curren), for instance, have a heretical discussion of Marx and Hitler. Drey’s nearly awe-struck discovery of Frank’s collection of racist, blackface figurines provides a clue to another approach, Frank’s approach, to contending with shameful cultural offenses, a.k.a. history: Embrace them, just as a Catholic might embrace evil to put it behind him.
Fleck’s palette is grim, like Dan and Drey’s surroundings, but he makes New York look like something new to film, by avoiding the visual cliches and casting the city –and its inhabitants — as new, and maybe even ripe with promise. Whether the potential will be fulfilled is the question hanging over “Half Nelson.” History has taught us the answer is no. But the movie suggests we must not be prisoners of history.