Glasgow Film Festival - Half Nelson - Ryan Gosling interview

School daze

Tom Dawson meets Ryan Gosling, Oscar-nominated star of the powerful new drama Half Nelson


Named after a wrestling hold in which an opponent’s strengths are turned against themselves, the US indie Half Nelson is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the Glasgow Film Festival. The directorial debut of Ryan Fleck, whose partner Anna Boden acted as co-writer and editor, it represents an expanded version of the duo’s award-winning short, Gowanus, Brooklyn.

The film’s central character is Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), a white teacher in a predominantly black junior high-school in Brooklyn. He passionately teaches his African-American students about the civil rights movement, drawing on dialectics to illustrate his belief that history is the struggle between opposing forces, yet Dan himself is taking refuge in cocaine. After basketball practice, one of his female pupils, 13-year-old Dree (Shareeka Epps), discovers him crashed out in a cubicle, clutching a crack pipe.

‘We were always trying to avoid the clichés of Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds,’ Fleck told Filmmaker magazine, and Half Nelson does succeed in avoiding the pitfalls which other films about inspirational teachers working in deprived inner-city environments have fallen into. The filmmakers adopt a low-key approach to their potentially melodramatic subject-matter, mainly shooting vérité-style and focussing on the nuances in the friendship that emerges between Dan and Dree, and on the relationship between the teenager and her other surrogate father-figure, the drug-dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie).

Gosling (the neo-Nazi in The Believer) gives an impressively understated (and deservedly Oscar-nominated) performance, conveying Dan’s complex mix of charisma and immaturity, charm and self-destructiveness, and making us care about his plight. Like the recently released Old Joy, Half Nelson examines the powerlessness felt by those on the left in contemporary America. Dan’s parents were radicals back in the 1960s, marching against the Vietnam War. His lessons highlight flashpoints in modern American history which are illustrated using archival clips - the Free Speech movement, the assassination of Mayor Harvey Milk, a landmark Supreme Court educational desegregation decision. Dan’s disillusioned idealism becomes a grim metaphor for all those in America despairing about life under Bush. ‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’ sighs Dan when confronted by Frank over his actions, and it’s to Half Nelson’s credit that the film never tries to provide glib explanations for its characters’ predicaments.

Half Nelson, Cineworld, Renfrew Street, Fri 23 Feb, 7.30pm.