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Half Nelson

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2006 1 Jan
Half Nelson
from Film Forum, 09/28/06

Ryan Gosling, the impressive young star of such disparate films as The Notebook, The Believer, and Stay, is earning some of the year's strongest praise from critics in the acclaimed new film Half Nelson.

Director Ryan Fleck's film introduces us to an inner-city public school history teacher whose life is falling apart under the influence of drugs. When he gets caught by one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), they develop a friendship that will challenge him and make a difference in Drey's troubled life at home.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Despite its bleak subject matter … Fleck's gritty film is ultimately about redemption, connection and transformation, and is buttressed by emotionally honest performances that illuminate flawed humanity and a taut script that avoids cliché, easy answers or oversentimentality."

"Half Nelson is a small and sad little film, but a deeply profound character study of a unique man who both attracts and repels us," says Brett McCracken (Looking Closer). He concludes, "The clearest thing about Half Nelson is that the culmination of its numerous complexities adds up to a compelling, deeply affecting experience.It's not an easy film, but it is one that—like its title implies—demands to be wrestled with."

Mainstream critics are similarly impressed. Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) says, "One might also argue that a crack addict couldn't be responsible enough to be a good teacher, but he's the most believable protagonist in any American movie I've seen this year. … [W]e can't really dismiss him without dismissing some part of ourselves."

from Film Forum, 10/05/06

Adam Tillman-Young (Relevant) writes, "When examined through the lens of a flawed person in meaningful relationship with Christ, Half Nelson strongly articulates the twisted moral paradox of action versus intention outlined by the apostle Paul in Romans 7. While teaching is a noble profession and crack is a humiliating addiction, the integrity of this film would hold up just as well if it were about a youth pastor with a wandering eye, a banker with a penchant for mugging old ladies, or if it were about you, pitting your greatest calling against your most crippling weakness."

from Film Forum, 02/01/07
Critics have raved about the film, and about Ryan Gosling's Oscar-nominated performance as a drug-addicted teacher in particular, but Kenneth R. Morefield (The Matthews House Project), who compares the film to Leaving Las Vegas, is skeptical: "Despite its good intentions, the film had a hard time reeling me in. I was curious about the logistics of Dan's addiction—how he managed his habit as long as he did. There was also something about his suffering that felt dishonest; it's all too existential, glossing over the squalor that increasingly accompanies giving oneself over to despair or depravity."