“How’s your opposites thing going?” In the teachers’ lounge at a Brooklyn public high school, Dan (Ryan Gosling) doesn’t know quite how to respond to Isabel’s (Monique Gabriela Curnen) question. “It’s a little thick,” he confesses, his efforts to instill in his eighth grade students an appreciation for historical dialectics. She smiles. He asks her to dinner. And once again, Dan imagines he’s escaped serious scrutiny from yet another outsider.
This scene in Half Nelson comes just after Dan’s had a sit-down with his increasingly impatient principal. She asks him point blank whether he’s even opened “the Civil Rights binder I gave you.” And he doesn’t even pretend that he has. Dan’s not much for following rules (“Is that gum?” asks the principal as he leaves her office, maybe sheepishly), and he has his own way of thinking about history. He has his students arm wrestle to get a sense of how opposing forces might affect one another (“Once one becomes stronger, there’s a turning point,” he instructs, “They can be physical or they can happen on a greater scale. Like a war or something”). Some students look intrigued, while others roll their eyes. And Dan struggles — visibly — with his drug addiction.
Dan’s take on history — as concept and series of events — has as much to do with his personal past as any ideological leanings. He sees history in motion, as ongoing questions. “I wanna know consequence,” he urges his students. “I wanna know what it means.” He will come to know exactly this.
While Dan is frustrated with current events (during one blitzed-out evening he fumes about the unfound WMDs), he’s also preoccupied by his ineffectual parents (they’re ex “hippies,” now suburban drunks) and his ex girlfriend Rachel (Tina Holmes), now straight and engaged to a guy she met in detox. “I tried to rehab thing,” he says wearily but with an odd show of conviction. “But it didn’t work for me.” Instead, he “handles it,” meaning, he relapses when Rachel comes back to town, or when he feels tired, or when he can’t face his daily routine one more time.
This routine includes waking early, asking his students to consider the meaning of history. And oh yes, not writing his book. Again. (Dan’s been working on a kids’ version of dialectics for enough time now that his parents ask after it without expecting progress.) When he’s not in the classroom or pacing in his sparsely furnished apartment, Dan’s coaching the girls’ basketball team. Looking at the sideline, he spots Drey (the remarkable Shareeka Epps), sucking on her lollipop. They eye one another and he asks her whether she’s coming in. “I ain’t done yet, Coach,” she says, defiant and seeming sure of herself.
An expansion of director/co-writer Ryan Fleck’s 2002 short, Gowanus, Brooklyn, Half Nelson might be termed a study of the “dialectic” between Dan and Drey. They couldn’t be more different from one another, but they share a sense of cynicism shaded with hope: neither exactly conceives a better option, but they imagine it. Andrij Parekh’s superb handheld camerawork makes their views of each other unsteady and curious. They lean back and look from across rooms, over students’ heads, through windows, the frame emulating their tentative efforts to see one another clearly. And then she catches him smoking crack in a bathroom stall.
Now the distance between them turns close and hard, their exchanged looks framed by slivers of doorways and revealed as sharp angles. Drey doesn’t seem so much startled as disappointed (her brother, mixed up in dealing, is now serving a stint in prison), Dan’s eyes are bleary. “I’m sorry,” Drey says, then fetches a damp towel to pat his forehead, and he lies back, pale and sweaty. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but I’m fine. Just don’t go, okay? Just for a minute?” And the camera cuts from acute close-ups to a long two-shot, from the bathroom doorway, washed out by the fluorescent lighting, their edges blurring into the background.
This shift in their relationship marks a “turning point” (a term Dan uses frequently in class), a change in their understanding of one another, more than a judgment passed or a trust betrayed. Each “gets” something about the other now. Dan starts giving her rides home from school after ball games (her mom [Karen Chilton] works double shifts, which means she spends a lot of time alone). She inquires about his personal interests, including a photo of Rachel When he tells her it’s none of her business, Drey knows better: “You put it out there,” she says. Their rhythms are tentative but also incongruously easy, probing and respectful, in ways they’re unable to be with others.
The opposing forces here become multiple, as Drey worries about Dan and Dan worries about Frank (Anthony Mackie), her brother’s dealer-boss. At first Frank does the lurking thing, hanging round Drey’s corner, offering her rides and candy, keeping black collectibles in his apartment. When Drey protests that she doesn’t like the looks of the cookie jar and the salt and pepper shakers, Frank claims property rights rather than provide an explanation: it’s his place, he can do what he wants. The difference between Dan and Frank has to do with their capacities for empathy, born of their pasts. Dan feels too much, Frank resists feeling, and Drey, while she surely recognizes Dan’s shortcomings — not least being that he’s white and painfully un-hip, not to mention unable to take care of himself — appreciates his efforts. She sees in him an opposing force, not threatening, but somehow instructive, and certainly invested in ways she hasn’t seen an adult before.
The course of Drey and Dan’s friendship is hardly smooth, rendered frequently by images of each alone — she rides her bike; he makes dinner for Isabel; she overhears her mother argue with her father on the phone (he’s not coming to see her, again); he gazes out the classroom window while trying, one more time, to show his students how two things might be true at the same time, how yin and yang works: spotting a tree, he says, “It’s crooked and it’s straight, it’s strong and it’s weak.” She visits her brother in prison. He insists he has his addiction under control, only using “when the occasion calls.”
Throughout Half Nelson, this developing balance is punctuated by brief bits of Drey and her classmates giving presentations for the class, on important turning points in history. As archival footage illustrates their stories, the kids recite on Attica, Brown v. Board of Education, Harvey Milk, and Pinochet. The events are violent, clashes of opposing forces. And though they are now history, half-forgotten, half disbelieved, they are also moments that changed someone or helped to transform what followed. Unexpected and potent, these instances interrupted routines. Seemingly removed from what’s happening now, especially from the yin and yang of Dan and Drey, they also have everything to do with their efforts to connect, to make sense of one another.