In the grips of drug addiction
Half Nelson tells the story of an idealistic young teacher Dan, unable to break his cycle of cocaine and crack abuse. Labouring under the delusion that he will finish an illustrated children’s book on ‘dialectics’, he teaches history at a run-down innercity school. Bringing left-wing theory into his lessons on the civil rights movement, his classes comprise predominately black teenagers from a poor suburb. When he has the sobreity to give them, that is; throughout the film he is increasingly unable to function with any kind of clarity.
Early in the film he is found in a locker room cubicle high on crack by one of his students Drey, and a tacit understanding is reached between them. She, whose brother has been incarcerated from involvement in the drug trade, can see how crack is devestating her community, but is still allured by the success of ‘Frank’, a drug dealing “family friend”. Frank gradually enrolls her in his business; drugs providing her with a potential but probably ephemeral means of escape from the squalor of her broken home. For Dan, the escape is from the burden of completing his book, and from turning his political ideals into affirmative action. His inertia and drug-addled stupour are shown in contrast to footage of highly impassioned speeches from the civil rights movement, calling on people to throw themselves down on the machinery of the system to grind it to a halt. Decades after the civil rights movement, many people in the black community are still caught up in the prison system, or denied opportunities to further themselves socially; but Dan is increasingly aware how little he can do about it. His classes on the dialectics of change through opposition, start to sound hollow when there is so little hope for his students. It sounds especially hopeless to Drey, who knows about Dan’s secret drug problems, which conspire to bring them together in an unlikely union of opposites. The question of whether Dan and Drey can progress and change themselves is left open, the film ending (as many of the best do) ambiguously.
It is an interesting work marred slightly by some polemic interludes featuring Dan’s students recounting key events from the civil rights movement. This is not well contextualised and doesn’t add anything to the film’s themes. However, there is some fine use of film style to evoke Dan’s crack-induced inertia. The dislocation and emptiness of his “highs” are realised with canny editing and blurred-focus that are quesily suggestive with the minimum of post-production trickery. Dan makes a convincing lead; one can imagine Paddy Considine playing the lead role if such a film could be made in the UK. But better still, for me, is Shareeka Epps as Drey, perfect as the coy teenager growing up under a multitude of imperfect influences. Also worth a mention is the soundtrack, largley provided by Canadian post-rockers Broken Social Scene. Rather than buying the OST your money might be better spent on their stunning 2003 album ‘You Forgot it in People’, from which much of this film’s music is taken.