Half Nelson And Planning

In a stack of papers called Personal.

  • Aug
  • 18
  • 2007

I finally watched Half Nelson the other day. 2 stars out of 5. The script needs some serious revision to be worth any kind of emotional investment or to live up to the Academy-Award-nomination hype.

As hard as they both tried, even Broken Social Scene‘s superb score and Ryan Gosling’s impressive performance fail to save this film. Gosling’s Dan Dunne demonstrates that it only takes a pulse and two brain cells connected by a tenuous synapse to “earn” a teaching credential. The administrator, in an attempt to portray the “heavy hand” of standardized curriculum, merely throws a soft look of scorn compared with how she should treat him. Mr. Dunne represents the kind of teacher who needs to be kicked violently out of the classroom without hesitation or a smile.

I never had a moment of sympathy for the guy. Every day he walks into his classroom, as Sting once wrote, “is a humiliating kick in the crotch.” If this guy can roll into work high, sleep at his desk, consent to kids cheating on a test, and get paid the same amount I do, why do any of us bust our humps? I see this movie as a portrayal of a real classroom somewhere — hopefully not at my school, but very possibly so. Maybe a crack-smoking teacher stretches things, but we all know teachers for whom the title is only technically correct.

My biggest issue with the film is the “teaching” it depicts. I fear that most movie audiences will see Dunne’s teaching as “what teaching outta be.” I can imagine people excited about the way Dunne “connects” with his students and teaches them about “real life” through his lectures. “History is the study of change over time” and he launches into a discussion of how conflict fuels history, a veiled reference to Dunne’s love of dialectics. Really, the best he does is rap rhapsodic about conflict to a group of eighth graders who are far too young to understand his esoteric rants. The worst he does is waste 50 minutes until the bell rings.

“I don’t know, I think some of them get it,” says Dunne. Possibly, but just as possibly not. To make matters worse, that’s all he ever talks about. The introductory “What is history?” lesson should have been finished in September at the latest. His administrator is right to ask him “Did you even open the binder on civil rights I gave you?”

Teaching is more than simply philosophizing with teenagers. There needs to be instruction in the content area because that’s what teachers are hired for: expertise in the subject. If philosophy facilitates that instruction, fantastic. Otherwise, save it for after the bell, when students ask you questions that you shouldn’t answer during class time (“Are you a republican or democrat?” comes to mind as such a question — and could easily produce such blathering).

So watch Half Nelson if you want to be reminded about why you should take time to plan or consider what you’ll do in class tomorrow. Don’t just wing it like Dunne does. If you do, at least go out in style and smoke some crack the night before. Yeah, that sounds ridiculous to me, too. So plan.

What’s Day One looking like for you so far?


1. Dan Meyer says:

[8/19/2007 - 7:08 pm]

C’mon Todd-man. No way Gosling’s wandering the back of the room, slobbering over himself, blabbering about “dialetics” to a class of bored eighth graders and Ryan Fleck’s telling us: “this is what a good teacher is.”

Teachers having been hating on Half Nelson lately ’cause they’re under the mistaken impression it’s about teaching. Which it ain’t. What it’s about is addiction. And it goes about what it’s about really really well, building to an emotional gut-punch I’m still reeling from months later. (Ya better know the one I’m talking about.)

So yeah, as a teaching movie, Half Nelson scores 2 outta 5. As a romantic-comedy, Half Nelson scores 2 outta 5 also. Worst historical epic I’ve seen all year too.

2. Todd says:

[8/19/2007 - 10:37 pm]

More credit, more credit, please. I know it’s not about teaching. But that’s my emphasis here and so it’s what I’m going to target in on.

My point is not that Fleck is telling us that Dunne’s a good teacher, but that many nonteacher viewers are thinking that. They are thinking that the administrator who tells Dunne to get on with actually teaching is preventing Dunne from “getting through” to his class.

If what you want to focus on is this as a film about addiction, it doesn’t even do that well. We have little sense about why he does what he does, how hard it is for him to handle his addiction, how he rationalizes being a drug addict and a teacher (that would make for an interesting film), his internal struggle to deal with his problems, the pain he causes his circle of friends, any trauma his addiction brings to his life (he actually seems perfectly content to be an addict and even happy with his ultimate decision). Viewers aren’t drawn into his world of addiction. We’re only given brief, clean, censored glances at it (one example being what you call the “emotional gut-punch”). Like Crash, this is a shallow treatment of a deep subject. That’s not just bad storytelling, it’s insulting in so many ways.

The writing is weak. The conversations are dull. Most characters are uninspired, flat archetypes. The plot is just not interesting. A single good actor and great music can’t save a movie if it’s got a bad script. There’s a good idea buried in there, but they didn’t develop the script enough to have that good idea pop out.

An odd thing about me, I like drug stories. So I should have been in this movie’s corner from the get go. But I wasn’t because the writing was so poor that it didn’t hook me in. As for that punch, you mean you didn’t see that coming from two reels away? It was so obvious that I almost groaned when it happened.

3. Alex says:

[11/16/2007 - 1:53 am]

Hi guys, just seen movie and enjoyed it, thouroughly. Todd you have made some intersting comments. I take it you are a teacher? in the states? here in England the beauocracy surrounding the teaching world is truly enough to make you want to start a drug addiction let alone actually “teaching”. If Half Nelson was anything else then what it has shown us it would either turn into a “Drug” movie (lets face it that would be bad) or simply an educational documentary that you would find on teachers tv. I agree with the “not only a single actor or music can save a film” but on this occasion i think it does.

4. Todd says:

[11/16/2007 - 11:11 am]

Well, we can agree to disagree. Gosling’s performance and the outstanding music aside, a bad script killed this film.

Bureaucracy is thick in the States, too, but that’s no justification for this movie.

5. Kit De Luca says:

[11/18/2008 - 3:19 pm]

I felt like there were some unfinished plots. I agree, they never really do show the cause of addiction. They never show him struggling to balance teaching and being an addict. They also never get deep into his personal life. I mean, they show his crappy apartment. The apartment that’s half empty and looks like he moved in it a month ago. I didn’t like that about the movie. What did like, was how they showed the affect of the little girl. They showed her story, and went into detail about everything she felt. The ending was horrible. It was complete bullshit. It seemed like it only ended because they ran out of film.
I’m a non-teacher and knew that what he was teaching wasn’t anything that anyone in 8th grade learns in class. None my teachers ever would have those discussions because they’d feel the class as a whole wasn’t ready for that, wasn’t mature enough to have those discussions, and wouldn’t have even thought it was school appropriate. SO I agree with the both of you on your views of the movie.

6. Emily says:

[2/16/2009 - 4:43 pm]

Hey, my name’s Emily and I’m a 16 year old girl who over the past few months has really gotten into independent films. Actually, their all I watch when I do watch a movie lately, mostly because of the subjects they touch major motion films don’t catch, and also the manner they choose to do that in.

When I saw Half Nelson, the summary of it sounded okay, something I might like. By the end of it, I thought “Wow. That was actually really amazing.”

On the whole “him being an un realistic, bad teacher” I actually have to say that is NOT true. Real, good teachers who want to reach kids (especially miniorities, who usually are harder to get their attention) use methods like the way he does. Although he shouldn’t be letting kids cheat and all that, he was also struggling with an addiction, and I think the manner of his teaching is raw, and it certainly grabbed my attention.

As for the “love” aspect of it, I didn’t even look at this film as one tackling love relationships. I think he was jsut searching for someone so he wasen’t alone, while living his life. At times he does seem like a prick, but that’s mostly the drugs speaking. I like how you can often see his vulnerability shining through.

As for everything that happens, the ending actually left me breathless (partly due to the AMAZING soundtrack) but it also left a sense of hopefulness, that he would get help, or fix up his life.

I don’t think people should dig so deep into it. Sure, we didn’t get enough information on his drug problem, but we saw him develop an outstanding friendship with a student, saw some of his struggles, and by the end I didn’t feel 100% connected to the characters, but I felt their emotions, and I think that was enough for me.

Oh, and check out “Fierce People” and “Beautiful Ohio” (:

7. Chelsea says:

[4/10/2009 - 1:48 am]

The movie is meant to be looked at as a glimpse into Dunne and Drey’s life. That is why there is no real description of how he became a drug addict or why: because it doesn’t matter. Although one can guess from his rants that he became a drug addict because his ideals began to fail him and reality slowly became too much too handle, as we see in the film.

I don’t think Fleck is trying to say that Dunne is a good teacher. I think the director is showing us what kind of teacher Dunne is and it is up to us to decide whether that is good or not. I think we see that Dunne thinks he is a good teacher, Dunne is so sure of his ideas about dialectics that he is convinced that these 14-year-olds will understand every word. That all comes with the drug addiction. If Dunne was a good teacher he wouldn’t be a drug addict and show up high to school. It’s the fact that he gets high and STILL shows up, its something about his dedication to teaching these kids, not what he teaches them.

When I saw this I did not automatically think ‘this is a good teacher, all teachers should teach like this’ I hope people looked past the “inspiring teacher helps troubled students” plot line and saw the deeper story underneath about how humans relate to one another and how we need other people in our lives so we have other perspectives of our situation other than our own.

The ending leaves it up to the viewers to think about, does he clean up or does he go back to drugs? What happend to Drey? In order to answer all of those questions the movie would have to be a lot longer and cover a vaster amount of time. Rather than the few weeks that cover the time span of the movie.

The movie serves as a look into one particular time in these two peoples lives that ultimately changed the course of their life.

The writer/directors Boden and Fleck have a tendency to leave the story at a place where you don’t know what happens. In their most recent film “Sugar” they end it in a way similar to “Half Nelson.”

They also tend to make movies that focus on times in peoples lives where they have to make a choice that will change things drastically. Often times the audience doesn’t get to see to outcome of that choice, but that’s how real life is too, right?

This is probably my favorite movie of all time. The writers/director are genius, definitely people to look out for in the next coming years. In my opinion it is just an enormously beautiful film.