You know those Leslie Nielsen spoofs that stitch together allusions to a bunch of movies in a particular genre? And how that torch has been passed to the Wayans brothers in recent years? I’m really surprised that neither party has made a Renegade White Teacher Inspires Inner City Students movie (that I know of). There are so many movies to draw from that every time a new one comes out, I’m like, “Really? Still?” Of course there are slight variations, like Renegade Latino Teacher Inspires Inner City Students and Renegade Ex-Marine Teacher Inspires Inner City Students, but after a while it all feels kind of uninspiring.
My sister Cathy teaches algebra and geometry at a school that people would probably describe as “inner city,” meaning that it’s poor, black and Latino, even though it’s technically in the suburbs. Cathy is one of those people who always wanted to be a teacher (well, at least since she decided being a professional clown chef wasn’t realistic), and when she was nine she started keeping a journal of things that her teachers did that she either wanted to copy or do differently. In college she studied all sorts of progressive education theories, and in the summers she volunteered at a camp for kids living below the poverty line. She is kind, smart, dedicated, creative and good at putting up with crap from teenagers. But more than half the kids in her classes are still failing math.
The moral of this story is: Teaching is hard. Teaching kids who life has already fucked with in one form or another is really hard, and maybe it’s egotistical to think you’re exactly what they need.
So how do you cope if you’re not an Inspiring Renegade Movie-Teacher but a regular mortal? If you’re Cathy, you watch a lot of cable on weeknights and eat a lot of low-fat ice cream. If you’re Ryan Gosling’s character in Half Nelson, which I saw last night with Nicole (thanks for the pass, Nicole!), you smoke a lot of crack.
When Dan (Gosling), a vinyl-collecting, aviator-sunglasses-wearing New Yorker, isn’t busy teaching the civil rights movement via a method called dialectics (which I have to ask Cathy about), or smoking crack, he coaches girls’ basketball. One of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), an eighth grader whose sheepish smile creeps out frequently despite her best efforts at stoicism, catches him all cracked out in the empty girls’ locker room after a game.
An unlikely friendship is born as she tries to protect him from himself, and he tries to protect her from the neighborhood drug dealer, Frank (Anthony Mackie of the great but little-seen Brother to Brother), a friend of her imprisoned older brother.
What Dan—and most movie viewers—don’t expect is that Frank is really watching out for Drey in his own fucked up way. And when Drey develops a schoolgirl crush on Dan—whose judgment is shaky at best—we start to wonder if she wouldn’t be better off under Frank’s guardianship. As much as I think teaching is hard, I also found myself thinking, Wow, those students deserve way better than that schmuck.
One of the most beautiful aspects of the movie is that Drey—a poster-child for underprivilege, a literal latchkey kid—is in fact deeply loved: by Dan, by Frank, by her overworked mother and her jailbird brother. One of the saddest moments is when we see Drey realize how much she is still on her own.
All of this is conveyed in slow, moody scenes with minimal dialogue, some funny throwaway lines and a soundtrack I think Dan would approve of. Half Nelson does follow one genre tradition in that the classroom lessons parallel the life lessons, but in this case that means inter-cutting scenes of Dan and Frank going head to head with footage of the civil rights movements. The result is a depressing/hopeful mix of “What the fuck happened?”/“What could happen?”
Plus I’m the type of viewer who can handle a little thematic heavy-handedness if the context is complex and the ideology is interesting and no one gives the teacher a standing ovation. Which no one does, thank god. Dan is lucky he doesn’t get fired. But director/co-writer Ryan Fleck? Yeah, I’d stand up and clap for him.