Perhaps the crowning achievement of Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson is its demonstration that there is some underlying truth to the persistent whine of self-proclaimed cineastes. The independent film community is capable of producing movies that Hollywood could never manufacture, at least not with the same aura of reality. Had one of the Big Ten backed Half Nelson, the film's many cracks and rivets would be polished beyond all recognition. The editing and camera would be oily-slick, the music performed with only the finest of instruments and recording equipment. The actors, it goes without saying, would be prettier. To summarize, it would be too well done, the product of an industry obsessed with logistics, professionalism, and marketability. Fleck's raw depiction of the movie's subject material only serves to better confront the viewer with the grim realities of its plot. The audience is free to inspect the characters of the character-driven Half Nelson with an uncommon clarity, with no Hollywood glaze to streak the glass of the display case.
Ryan Gosling (Remember the Titans) plays Dan, a junior-high history teacher in a decrepit school in Brooklyn. Introverted by default and extroverted when he feels he is expected to be by society, Ryan is generally a loner whose only full-time living companion is his cat, Dave. Dan is caught smoking crack cocaine by one of his students, Drea (Shareeka Epps, in her film debut) and the two form a bond neither wants to admit is horrifically awkward. Drea has personal problems of her own, and she and Dan attempt to make things better for each other despite a crippling lack of knowledge of how to do so.
Dan employs unorthodox teaching methods and treats his students as equals, an attitude that pushes the film dangerously close to an inescapable pit of cliché filmmaking. Few plots are as trite, timeworn and mawkish as the "Mr. Smith Goes to Teach Public School" story, where the kids are unruly but their instructor teaches them respect by respecting them in return. But the film never approaches such levels of maudlin storytelling, nor does it acknowledge that the cliché even exists. Rather than the teacher being a wise, blameless guru, he is as fallible as his indigent students, desirous to enrich their lives but afraid his own problems will rub off on them if he does not remain in the sole position of their teacher.
The entirety of the film is grainy, and possibly all with handheld cameras as well. It could probably fit the guidelines of a Dogma 95 film, and certainly is in tune with the movement's purpose. Throughout the movie, there is little change in the camera angles, rate of cuts, or even the tone of the music. Such homogenous directorial style leaves the actors to convey the changing mood of the film all by themselves, unaided by differing camera or editing techniques forming a cheat sheet for the audience. As a result, the audience's attention is forced upon the characters themselves, as is the goal of a character-driven film.
The film's grainy look also serves to aid its stark portrayal of New York's inner cities, which is outstanding in that it's refreshingly realistic compared to the portrayal of such settings in mainstream fare. Hollywood tends to be predictably condescending to its lower-class characters, portraying them as blameless, dignified, simultaneously strong and helpless. While a lower-class viewer would feel a bizarre and unnatural combination of pride and self-pity watching such a movie, he would immediately be able to relate to the characters of Half Nelson, thanks to the film's unapologetic realism in depicting them.
It's easy to recognize the elements of Half Nelson that would be muted, obscured, or downright perverted had it been manufactured by the Hollywood machine. Dan would certainly not be addicted to crack, but a narcotic with an air of romanticism attached to it, such as heroin or powder cocaine. The character's personal problems would be easier to digest, with none of the excessively gnarly problems the urban population has in real life. The film's look would be immaculate, and the camera would be handheld only during scenes of action or confrontation to give them a disorienting feel. The movie would be scrubbed down with disinfectant and vacuum-sealed, too afraid to offend to make a valid statement about anything.
Half Nelson has the unfortunate tendency to become aware of its independent film status and strut its provision of social commentary, which is most evident in scenes of Dan's students presenting reports of civil rights issues ranging from Brown v. Board of Education to the Harvey Milk assassination. The necessity and relevance of such scenes is questionable, but at least they underscore the film's theme of people making do in times of injustice. The film is deceptively simple, fleshed out by the intricacies of its plot and characters to form a startlingly realistic depiction of honor — and friendship — in the ghetto.