Saturday, September 13, 2008

Half Nelson -- Friendships and addictions

Half nelson is a wrestling move where an opponent forces a person to the ground by using an arm lock around the neck. In some sense it resembles a form of strangulation and is difficult to get out of without a real fight. This represents Dan Dunne's (Ryan Gosling) situation where his drug addiction is slowly strangling him.

Dunne is a middle-school history teacher in inner-city Brooklyn. A free spirit, he eschews the curriculum and creates his own material off-the-cuff. His heart-felt teaching on civil rights engages and challenges the kids but defies the principal's edicts to use the standard curriculum. He is alone. we first see Dunne, at the start of Half Nelson, he is leaning on walls or mostly hiding behind walls in the school. And he wears huge sunglasses. He has something to hide. That something is his addiction.

Dunne is also the girls' basketball coach. After a loss and all the players have gone home, Dunne smokes a crack joint and collapses to the floor. When Drey (Shareeka Epps) finds him on the fl, semi-incapacitated, his secret is out in the open. But Drey is also a lonely soul, being raised by an overworked single mother who is barely home because of her job. This shared secret leads to the beginnings of a friendship.

Half Nelson is a gritty, unsentimental story of addiction, loneliness and friendship. The grainy photography used for most of the film (except for the bright and clear shots in the classroom) communicates the confusion and complexity of Dunne's solitary existence. Though a little slow, the film is carried by the two leads. Gosling is a hugely talented actor (check out Lars and the Real Girl) and was nominated for an Oscar here for this powerful portrayal. And Epps, stands her ground in her scenes where the two are verbally sparring. Dunne lectures his students, he is unknowingly sharing a window into his soul. "Change moves in spirals, not circles. . . We're always changing. And it's important to know that there are some changes you can't control and that there are others you can." He is changing, and it is a spiral but a downward spiral. Like many addicts, he fools himself into thinking he is control: "For the most part, I do it now to get by, but I can handle it." Drugs are a crutch for him, a weak crutch. They are not supporting but bringing him further and further down toward the abyss.

It is only as his friendship with Drey develops, inappropriate though it may be, that he begins to see his life for what it is. As their lives intersect and she faces a decision, hope and redemption surface. Nelson shows the destructiveness and deceitfulness of addictions. Once they have their hooks in you, they rarely let go. Like a wrestler locking you in a half-nelson, it is tough to escape. There are many types of addiction, but they all have this in common. Even when we think we are in control, when we think we have it licked, we are often deceiving ourselves. What may have started as a crutch, a way to handle the pain of life, takes over.

Sometimes loneliness is the root of the pain, sometimes it is something else. But it is hard to fight the half-nelson of addiction on our own. We need a friend, someone who can show us our true selves when we would hide behind the sunglasses or the mask.

In Half Nelson, the friendship of Drey and Dunne proves to be mutually beneficial. As she helps him to see his own problems, he can help her to see the potential consequences of bad decisions. Friendships are important. Not only do they add joy to life and bring love (Prov. 17:17), but they provide insight and counsel often needed (Prov. 27:6). We can too easily be blind to our own sins and addictions. A friend who tells us the truth, who can hold us accountable is a friend indeed! Like Dunne, we all need such a friend.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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