One thing may not make a person, but it can certainly undo them. Dan Dunn, the protagonist of the slow-burning Half Nelson (2006), illustrates equal parts idealistic youngish public servant, doped out but functional working stiff, and part broken hearted romantic – in other words, a plurality of “things.” Half Nelson’s strength lay in its ability to level traditional narratives regarding teachers, education, drugs, and friendship. Dan may truly care about his students, but he’s also occasionally incompetent and irresponsible – unless one considers walking out of one’s classroom for a brief nap in the teacher’s lounge mid-class competent or responsible.
Slate’s Dana Stevens summarized Dunn succinctly: “Dan is like a superhero in reverse, charismatic and brilliant by day, self-pitying and self-destructive by night. He drinks, smokes, snorts coke with bar pickups, and, when the stress really gets to him, takes the odd hit of crack.” The New York Times described Dunn as a modern bohemian: “From his thrift-store wardrobe to his taste in dive bars to the socially conscious titles lining his bookcase, Mr. Gosling’s Dan makes for a credible Brooklyn hipster.” The movie drew acclaim from critics and Dan (played by Ryan Gosling) rightly received great attention.
Dan’s pedagogical approach employs dialectics to explain historical change, and Stevens points out that the movie embodies its own set of dialectics in one of Dunn’s students, Drey. For Stevens, Drey’s life encapsulates Dunn’s teachings about the dynamic interplay of opposites, as she is pushed and pulled between her teacher and Frank, the neighborhood drug pusher. The two men “seem at first like polar opposites, but their motivations and methods keep crisscrossing: Dan wants to help Drey grow up right, sure, but he also needs her to prop up his own rapidly vanishing idealism. And Frank may be looking for more cheap labor to exploit, but he’s also the closest thing she has to a loving father.”
Neither one of these “opposites” is simple or clear-cut. Frank very well may be a drug dealer, but he seems to care for Drey. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis described Frank as “the charming midlevel dealer who already has his hooks in her older brother.” Dan may also care for Drey, but a habitual crack user may not be a great role model for a teenage girl. While Frank does incorporate Drey into his drug service, it hardly seemed like a permanent position. Moreover, Frank tried to warn Drey about Dan. “Don’t you think your relationship with that teacher is… inappropriate?” he asks her at one point. When Drey asserts that she and Dan are friends, Frank declares, “He’s a basehead. Baseheads don’t have friends.” One could even conclude that Frank was trying to show Drey the perils of addiction when he sends her to deliver drugs to various shady, disheveled, desperate customers.
Co-writer Ryan Fleck suggests that Frank deserved greater consideration. “If you’re white and you put a black drug dealer in a movie,” Fleck said, “you’re going to feel self-conscious about it. Is it irresponsible? The intention was to make the character as complex as everybody else, not a cliché.” Curiously, most critics seem quick to doubt Frank’s good intentions, but reflexively hopeful about Dan. Like Dan himself, perhaps they assume that the middle-class white schoolteacher, despite his crack addiction, is more likely to have the young woman’s best interests at heart – at least more so than the neighborhood dealer who simultaneously looks out for Drey and uses her as a delivery girl.
Indeed, one wonders if Dan’s good intentions amount to much. He stomps into Drey’s neighborhood to confront Frank, in a seeming fit of stimulant-induced rage and frustration. He demands that Frank do him “a solid” and leave Drey alone. Not surprisingly, Frank is incredulous. “Do you a solid? Drey is my family.” He also can’t understand why the tightly-wound neighborhood outsider thinks he has such a great grasp on what his and Drey’s relationship is like. The contrast could not be starker between the agitated Dan and the relaxed Frank, whose first question is, “What are you so angry about?”
Dan is despairing at the world he lives and works in, where the nation is sailing off into a pointless war, and where he sees a bright young woman falling into the netherworld of drugs that he knows all to well – or, at least, thinks he knows. He may teach about Attica, Cesar Chavez, and the evils of “the system”; he may even know some of the evils firsthand due to his addiction to crack and cocaine; yet he understands little about what Drey or Frank’s lives are really like. When he’s crashing on coke, though, he thinks he can march into the neighborhood and set things right.
In this regard, he is not too different from generations of white crusaders who sought to fix the problems of the poor and people of color. Half Nelson excels in part because it humanizes the heroic white uplifter of pop lore, who has reached down to help the benighted urban poor in everything from The White Shadow to Dangerous Minds. Dan is not so disillusioned and out of touch as his boomer parents; his mother speaks ruefully of once trying “to save the world,” and his father asks him if he’s teaching Ebonics in “that zoo.” But his yearning to do good and change something, anything, does reveal some short-sightedness.
For instance, Dan’s teaching may be charismatic, compelling, and intellectual, but do his students grasp it? Does he help them make the connections between dialectics – a weighty concept for middle schoolers – and the world around them? One can see a middle class arrogance in Dan, which subconsciously exalts his ability to carry these complex ideas to students even in the face of more complex dynamics. When his principal visits the classroom, frowning on Dan’s approach, she demands that he begin using the official “civil rights module” post haste. Her methods might be formulaic and state-mandated, but are they really any worse than his? Is he helping his students by talking more about Hegel than Martin Luther King?
Despite these concerns, critics applauded Dan’s approach to pedagogy. The New York Times described his teaching as “oddly effective,” while Lisa Schwarzbaum sees in Dan “a charismatic, dedicated inner-city Brooklyn teacher.” Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, like other critics, seemed to celebrate Dunn’s approach: “Veering off the official syllabus, he prods his kids to think about the civil rights movement and the CIA-backed Chilean coup and all of human history as a series of ‘opposing forces.’”
This is all well and good, for sure – pushing the envelope in traditional instruction and curriculum can be hugely valuable. Yet inner city educators (Mr. Reft taught for nearly a decade in NYC’s public schools including one year in the Bronx, and two in Brooklyn) could definitely find fault with Mr. Dunn’s lessons. Dan’s pedagogy suffers from narcissism and a troubling inability to address some fundamental problems facing his children. Yes, getting them to think critically remains a vital skill to be imparted, as is the ability to apply classroom lessons to real life. However, Dan’s methods ignore the socioeconomic difficulties facing his students. Though it may look nice, his classroom speeches engage a select few and promote a kind of teleological view of history. Change may always be negotiated, but this negotiation occurs on unequal terms. The outcome involves the input of more than one party, but not in equal parts.
Some observers have noted that Dan’s inherent self destructiveness serves as a larger symbol of leftist failure. “A would-be visionary who wants to change the world but can’t get his act together… is often his own worst enemy,” the New York Times noted. “It’s not a stretch to read it as a comment on the sorry state of the American left.” Co-writer Anna Boden confirmed that such an allegorical interpretation was intentional, but doesn’t this stance display the same myopia it hopes to remedy? Drey and Frank’s stories serve as the vehicle for exploring the weaknesses and contradictions of a white, middle class schoolteacher. Dunn may be painfully aware of his privileged identity in a poor black neighborhood, but it doesn’t stop him from taking advantage of such dynamics to score rock.
Despite the focus on Dan, it is the 13-year old Drey who is the hero of the movie. She navigates the challenges of a broken home, a rough neighborhood, the drug trade, and a relationship with a sympathetic but self-destructive teacher, never losing her steady resolve. Half Nelson is littered with wrecked families, with characters who seek any relationship or set of relationships as a substitute. Frank insists that the neighborhood is his family, and he looks after Drey in a way her absent father never did – even if his intentions are not entirely noble. Her mother is depicted only as an overworked and worried single mother, who is rarely around. Even Dan is unmoored from his own clueless and emotionally distant kin. Drey alone seems to act as a self-reliant individual, drawing on her own strength and judgment in a world full of flawed and damaged adults.
Dan wonders at one point if one person can make a difference – a difference that, despite his best or worst efforts, he seems unable to make. Perhaps the teacher wanted to focus on fixing others because he couldn’t fix himself. And perhaps Drey represents the promise amidst poverty and adversity, as a young person who must make difficult choices for herself before she can go on to help anyone else.
Ryan Reft and Alex Sayf Cummings