Netflix Film of the Week: Half Nelson

The FILM IN WORDS Netflix Film of the Week: helping you navigate the filmic minefield of the nation’s favourite video streaming service.

Half Nelson Large 2

Words: Brody Rossiter
Twitter: @BrodyRossiter


I’m always fearful of writing about my favourite films for several reasons. Firstly, I may not do them justice. Secondly, and selfishly, I want to keep them for myself and not worry about the critiques that others may cast upon them. However, life has a funny way of reminding you why you fell in love those pictures in the first place. Whether it’s kicking you in the teeth or introducing something that you can’t quite understand, you are instantly transported back, and those films become an essential coping mechanism for the thoughts, feelings and personal trials that draw ever closer.

Portrayed by Ryan Gosling, Dan Dunne is a history teacher in a Brooklyn high-school. Despite being admired by his students and popular among colleagues, the young teacher spends his evenings trawling bars and gently slipping into a drug and drink induced decline into nothingness. After one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), discovers him stoned in a bathroom stall following a school basketball game, the pair form an unlikely friendship that may somehow heal the wounds of addiction and loss.

Half Nelson is a film about being fucked up. It’s a film about drinking every night because you never thought you could hurt so bad over something that you never even had. It’s also a film about accepting that you may never have that thing you so desperately want but still secretly hoping that one day you will. It’s a film about helping others even if you can’t help yourself.

Dan’s inability to pull himself out of the black hole of depression and addiction that a breakup opened is a melancholic yet distinctly optimistic narrative driven by Gosling’s incredibly engaging and Academy Award nominated depiction of a broken man. Anthony Mackie’s neighbourhood dealer, Frank, is a distinct foil and an opposite yet equally influential force to Dan in the life of thirteen-year-old Drey. Such contrasting dynamics and relationships ultimately form a heart-breaking and uplifting tale of individuals young and old searching for something more.

Half Nelson’s sleepy pace and subdued soundtrack (orchestrated by Canadian indie stalwarts, Broken Social Scene), are teamed with the welcoming embrace of softly lit interiors and sun-kissed street corners. The cold blue tones of evening descending usher in bouts of self-loathing and self-realisation only to be quickly erased by the hungover haze of morning. There’s hard drug abuse and gentle conversation. It all just works and not one second doesn’t matter.

Sometimes life takes us to places that we thought we’d never see. Hollowed-out spaces that breed emptiness, loneliness and confusion, and yet, just outside the door, through the glass of the windowpane, something beautiful, wild and multi-coloured roams – something, or someone that despite being fingertips away, may as well rest on the other side of a vast ocean of poorly chosen words and failed encounters. You try to express yourself but trip over your words, you search for substitutes but quickly realise there are none and eventually you’re overcome by anger and frustration.

Once I lived alone, I bought a Half Nelson poster, one of the big quad ones that they slide inside illuminated glass boxes outside cinemas. I don’t know why I did that, I felt bad every time I looked at it. I don’t live there anymore but it’s still pinned up and I wish I could show you so we could take it down together.

Half Nelson is available on Netflix UK now.

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