It’s been a slow few months for films at UICA, but the schedule seems to be picking up and we made our first visit in a while to see Half Nelson, a film I’d been looking forward to since reading about it in Andrew O’Hehir’s compelling but all too often frustrating (given how few of the films he mentions make it here) column for Salon, Beyond The Multiplex.
As O’Hehir makes clear, this is most definitely not another “inspirational-teacher flick” in the vein of To Sir With Love. As befits a film with quite this much indie-cred, its tale is far more ambiguous. Ryan Gosling’s teacher certainly has his moments of inspirational teaching (and his decision to teach history to these disenfranchised minority kids through Marxist influenced dialectics is a daring decision in an America that has yet to get past the Red Scare) but his life is anything but inspiring.
Meanwhile Anthony Mackie’s Frank, a notorious criminal looking out for one of Gosling’s students in gratitude for her incarcerated brother having taken the rap for him, is a similarly complex character and it’s hard to come to a judgement about his role in her life. We’ve spent a lot of time lately watching HBO’s The Wire and this film plays well as a companion to that show, digging into the complex social structures that have been built around the drugs trade in many otherwise impoverished communities.
The middle acts of the film have a few moments where the pace could have picked up, but Half Nelson deserves the praise it’s receiving.