Shakers: Do you like a lil’ verite with your cinema? A lil’ gritty ‘n’ realistic with your entertainment? How about some social consciousness and political conscience with your beautiful-but-accessible male protagonists? Then allow me to harangue you into renting Half Nelson, because it’s awesome and you should watch it. It’s about a crack-smoking eighth-grade history teacher who befriends a female student in a rough Brooklyn (what-what!) neighborhood.
One of the things I realized afterward that I really appreciated about this film was its myopic view of life in this part of Brooklyn. Based on a shot which included the Kentile Fabrics sign (which I can see on my morning subway ride), I think it takes place in or around Bedford-Stuyvesant, which is a brief subway ride from Manhattan and all the money and glamour therein. But there is nothing of “New York City” in this film. This is pre-gentrified Brooklyn, a Brooklyn I don’t see at all living in Park Slope with its wine shops and baby-fashion boutiques. The makers of Half Nelson give this place a voice, a visual identity, and most importantly, dignity; they make the old playgrounds and the grass sprouting up from the cracks in the sidewalks look beautiful; the children in class are bored, sweaty, caught on between jaded and impressionable, their budding collective intellect graceful and significant; Gosling’s crappy pre-war one-bedroom seems almost romantic, if only because his living there is a manifestation of his choice to teach history and basketball to poor black kids a brief bridge-ride across the East River from the world’s most famous island of wealth and ‘opportunity.’
I can’t recommend it enough. Oh, and the music rocks, too.