Monday, 29 January 2007

Half Nelson (2006)

Finally, a teacher turns troubled students around movie that isn't patronising or disconnected from reality!

"Idealistic teacher turns troubled (or terminally bored) students around": hardly a year goes by without some new member of this film genre hitting the cinemas, and older members getting shown on television every Teacher's Day. Traditionally, it is expected that the teacher will have some form of eccentricities, most notably deviating from the prescribed course materials (Robin Williams notably demanded his students "Rip! Rip! Rip!" the introduction to their literature study guide in Dead Poets Society, Julia Roberts forces her young conservative charges to look at nude art in Mona Lisa Smile). It is sometimes expected that the teacher will modify their pedagogical methods to suit the students (Danny DeVito tries to get his underachieving class of army recruits interested in Shakespeare, in Renaissance Man, while Richard Dreyfuss and Jack Black turn kids on to music in Mr Holland's Opus and School of Rock respectively). On the other side of the equation, the students are always expected to be a sort of challenge to the teacher; they are either underachieving, bored, hostile to new methods, or very occasionally disadvantaged urban poor predisposed to gangfights and other self-destructive behaviour (e.g. Michelle Pfeiffer's students in Dangerous Minds, or the students in the early, pre-censorship crackdown episodes of Moulmein High).

Yet nothing has prepared us for Ryan Gosling's turn as Dan Dunne, an excellent and eccentric history teacher in a decaying inner-city school. Yes, he does depart radically from the course material (the naughty teacher secretly unloads the students with Engels, Hegel and Foucault hrough the Black Panthers, the civil rights movement, and the everyday life of the students!), is close to the students in a kind of hip manner (teacher is also a very zen-like basketball coach who isn't scared of abusing kayu referees), and has to deal with the behavioural problems of some students - but really, nobody expects that a model teacher like that would have any real problems. Like a barely controlled drug problem. This sort of complication is - despite the more 'realistic' entries in this genre - competely unthinkable. But if you notice, only in films do teachers face no psychological problems aside from the problem of being rebels, whereas reading the Straits Times or just by a simple street poll, we know that one of the perils of teaching in schools is mental instability, depression, and the development of bizarre habits (not necessarily drug abuse, mind you).

So Half Nelson is the most realistic entry of the school drama genre film, and its strength is to show how an individual with a severe problem can still be motivated enough to teach, and how he manages to be an excellent teacher in spite of (or maybe because of) his problems. Intensely psychological, the movie doesn't shy away from the realities of life, refusing to validate the fairy tale that perfect and blameless people walk around in schools, or that teachers have the power to change every single life in the classroom. Dunne is a realistic idealist who will be happy if he manages to change just one student's life, but his entire project enters difficult territory once that student, a promising student (played by Shareeka Epps) who is in danger of joining a gang, discovers his drug habit. How do you inspire and guide a student when you expect them to follow your teachings, but not your actions? Half Nelson explores this intiguing question, and also comes very close to answering how real life, flesh and blood all-too-human teachers work out their ideals and flawed reality in their lessons.

Half Nelson is a testament to the struggles we all have to go through in our lives, and to the noble instinct to reach out to others no matter how flawed we are at the moment. As a school drama, it also comes close to be the most realistic of the lot, with its emotionally and spiritually-struggling teacher, and its lack of a simplistic fairytale ending. Acting-wise, Ryan Gosling fleshes out this very difficult role with ease, bringing out his character's inner turmoil in a sympathetic manner. His Oscar nomination for Best Actor is a recognition of his performance in this movie, and I was also impressed by Shareeka Epps, who is able to measure up to Gosling's intensity.

Despite its very realistic portrayal of school life and subversive teachings, Half Nelson is an inspiring school drama that I hope will be run on televsion on Teacher's Day some time in the future, uncut.

First published at incinemas on 1 February 2007

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