Black and white. Male and female. Young and old. Rich and poor. Teacher and student. Addict and dealer. Parent and child. Ryan Fleck’s debut fictional feature, Half Nelson, details the shifts and transformations that come when two “opposites” collide. The film’s central character, a Junior High history teacher named Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), frames his lectures around this concept, bringing it to his students through a variety of images. Calling his framework “dialectics” (referencing Hegel, and, probably even more, Marx), he teaches the idea that all of history is change, resulting from a collision of different objects. These collisions are always grounded in the real world, one person or group crashing into another.
The film’s characters embody the characteristics of Dunne’s philosophy of history. Their encounters are largely defined by the tensions and contrasts between them. Take the film’s central relationship between Dunne and his thirteen year-old female student, Drey (Shareeka Epps). On the surface, it’s easy to ask what a young, urban, African-American female and an older, (raised) suburban, male white teacher might have in common. They come from different worlds, his one of privilege, hers of need. His upbringing was safe, hers littered with the potholes of dealers and prisons. Yet his weakness (drug addiction) and her strength bring them together in a way that allows the dialectic to work itself out.
Fleck’s choice of shots in two sequences heightens our awareness of this dialectic in a formal sense. In the first, immediately following a basketball game (in which Dunne coached), Drey discovers him getting high in the girls restroom. The scene unfolds with handheld shots in extreme close-up. It begins with Dunne in a stall getting high, the camera going in and out of focus. Fleck cuts several times here, evoking the passage of time, which allows the drug to take root in Dunne’s system. Next comes several shots looking out from within the stall as Dunne hears someone in the restroom. When Drey finally opens the door, a second perspective is finally available, one beyond the drug-influenced vision of Dunne. Fleck cuts back and forth between these two perspectives as Drey helps Dunne by getting him some water, all the while staying in close-up.
The limits created by the use of close-ups in this sequence allow us to identify with each character’s perspective, even as they see different things in different ways (the shot often blurs as Dunne gets high). And just as the intensity dies down a bit, just as we get comfortable with our two distinct views of the action, Fleck pulls back for a wide shot, young Drey leaning over her prone teacher. The beauty of that cut lies in the fact that it serves to heighten a difference we already thought was fully distinct. Seeing this young girl thrust into such a position of fear and responsibility serves to illustrate the distance between these two characters.
In the film’s final minutes, several visual cues lead to a more complex view of this relationship. Indeed, they are not just opposites by film’s end. After Dunne has left everything, even his students, for a drug-filled night with prostitutes and other shady characters, Drey comes to get him. When she enters his hotel room, we see them in a wide shot sitting on opposite beds, facing one another. Here we find a visual moment that evokes both distinction and identification. That they face one another, that she’s black and he’s white, she a student, he a teacher, she poor and he from money—all these things lead us to see them as opposites. Yet, she sits there on equal ground with him. After all she’s been through, she too has fallen from innocence. She too has something to be guilty about. She too knows something of his addiction. And Dunne knows this. He knows she comes to him as an equal. In this way, they identify with each other.
All this leads to the final image, as she and Dunne sit in a long shot facing the camera on a couch back at his apartment. They are still terribly different people, yet their common direction and posture indicate that they’ve forged some connection. They’ve each been changed by the encounter with the other. She’s experienced a little more of the world, resulting in a chastened innocence. He’s been encouraged by a thirteen year-old girl who pursues him in the depths of his struggle. These two opposites have collided, leaving a synthesis in the midst of their pain and trials.