Saturday, October 07, 2006

Half Nelson

"The study of change over time" is how the an inner city elementary teacher played by Ryan Gosling defines history in Half Nelson.

This movie is a documentary-style film of his personal history with snippets of the students presentations in between. The students are very smart (well, the one exception being the a student who repeatedly gets in trouble for copying on tests) and they seem to get a kick out of the jocular techniques of their teacher, who is very alternative (he's a great teacher but he gets in trouble for not following the curriculum). There is something about him though, a certain existential nausea. He's burnt out and frustrated, repeating a cynical view of the world that "one man is nothing", that there are "certain things you can't control." You can tell it bothers him deeply. It makes him unravel.

He's a good-looking, intelligent bachelor who happens to indulge in the bar scene after coaching basketball, who will give students a ride home but womanizes and fails to establish any lasting relationships. At one point on a date with one of his fellow teachers they are sitting in the kitchen and she asks him whether he is a communist due to him having books like the Communist Manifesto sitting on his shelves. He asks her "if I had a copy of Mein Kampf would you ask me if I was a Nazi?" Then he mock professes that he is a Nazi and that he keeps it a secret because "it just isn't cool to be a Nazi anymore baby." She laughs. Later on however, he comes to her house late in the morning strung out on drugs and commits a faux-pas for which he must wear a band-aid on his lip to cover for the second half of the movie. Of course, he couldn't simply choose a skin-toned band-aid. Instead this film is peppered with symbology and references, and Gosling's character is an eccentric. The band-aid has a confederate symbol. It seems to reiterate what he admits to his students: that he is the machine that they are fighting to break free of. He is their white, middle-class schoolteacher. But, they are all part of the machine. While they may be learning what happened on Sept 11, 1973 he is learning to unlearn that he is a machine. He starts to learn what it is to be a human.

You watch him change over time as someone striving to teach his students something feeling like he's getting nowhere, at the same time learning from them about how to treat oneself better, how to form relationships and live a stable lifestyle. He forms an unlikely relationship with one of his students after she finds him smoking crack in a bathroom stall and realizes that despite the image he projects as an inspirator of fighting against the machine, he has problems himself. She is a product of a broken home who goes against the odds: a straight A student who takes care of herself at the age of 13 and who also teaches her teacher a lesson or two played by Shareeka Epps. Although Gosling definitely deserves the credit for his acting in this movie, Epps is the sweetheart that brings it alive. During another scene, he suddenly decides that it's too dangerous to be friends with his students and snubs one of the few people who understands him when she comes to see him in the parking lot saying "I'm just trying to be alone." "Fine," she says. Then adds tactfully: "be alone, asshole."

The classroom lessons nicely compliment the themes of the characters themselves, how the teacher's laid-back style and quick temper get him into trouble with the administration, and how his extracurricular relationships begin messily overlapping with his professional life.

I enjoyed the ending of this movie because it wasn't a conventional ending. In other words, it seemed to keep going. It never tried to preach any final kind of message or agenda. If there is a pearl of wisdom that can be gleaned from this movie, perhaps it's more in the mind of the viewer who must imagine how things could possibly continue after the credits are rolling, how teacher and student can continue being friends and what that means for their lives. It's a story of change which will change you once you've seen it.



Blogger iamnasra said...

Seems so good movie..Hope to get a chance to see it as I can never keep u with them

4:22 p.m.  
Anonymous Adorable Girlfriend said...

I haven't been to the movies in so long. Thanks for the tip.

5:29 p.m.  
Blogger Mitzzee said...

happy belated thanksgiving guy

1:45 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still want to see this. Run, don't walk to "The Departed"

12:43 a.m.  
Blogger sophie said...

I loved this film:)

4:14 p.m.  
Blogger pandave said...

i will say that this movie is well worth watching. and it sticks with you well after you have seen it. and when it ended i was not ready for the end... i could have gone on watching this story.

3:21 p.m.  

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