There’s little breathing room in Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson. Daniel Dunne, a drug addicted inner city history teacher, is a character caught in a position he’s unable to break free from (as the title suggests). The source of this, or what it is specifically, is never entirely clear; does it refer to his inability to change and the sense of stasis his character is perpetually stuck in, his growing disillusionment despite his genuine optimism and passion for teaching, or to how his character seems caught between worlds politically, socially, and economically? Is it the cause or the result of his addiction? The film’s visuals help to establish this, primarily framing the figures individually and in close-ups. It is in this way that Fleck is able to capture his character’s sense of confinement, the feeling that he’s cramped or trapped both internally and within the tight confines of the frame. Fleck thus establishes boundaries for Dan through the film’s cinematography that only drugs seem able to alleviate. The strong use of close-ups and individual framing not only serves to establish Dan’s feelings of confinement and restriction, but illustrates the way he (and thus the addict in general) feels cut off, separated from those around him. It is this feeling, this sense of disconnection that Dan’s character not only seems to struggle most with in the film, but that is ultimately changed through the unlikely bond he forms with one of his students.
"A Half-Nelson. One of Its Many Applications", Creative Commons
Unlike other film’s on the subject (such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Blow), Half Nelson’s focus isn’t so much on the exoticism or romanticism of drugs and the addict, the world that surrounds drugs and drug dealing, or the drug experience itself, but instead on how drugs shape Dan’s social interactions and the way he relates (or doesn’t relate) to those around him. The different drugs he uses throughout the film seem to allow him to momentarily step outside that sense of confinement and suffocation, those isolating boundaries that disconnect him from other people. Six minutes into the film, Fleck shows us as Dan drops a straw (for snorting cocaine) onto his coffee table, cutting away before we see the drugs or him using. In the scene that follows, Dan goes to a bar where he meets two women. They enter the cramped frame with him as they dance. By keeping the camera close to the characters, focusing on the movement of their bodies, Fleck establishes a certain connection between the three. He then cuts from the dance floor to the bathroom, as one woman passes cocaine to the other. They discuss their love for Oprah while Dan, his high presumably subsided, tries to explain how he “fucks things up just to fuck them up.” Despite the small space of the bathroom and how the three figures are positioned in close proximity to each other, Fleck portrays their conversation almost entirely through close-ups. The connection between them has been broken. Unlike before where all three were squeezed into one frame here they are separate, with Dan cutoff from the other two. Their dialogue reflects this growing sense of disconnection as well. Similar to his other social interactions in the film (such as with his family, with the other teachers, and with the other girl he meets in the same bar later on) there is a breakdown in communication; the two talk over Dan, they don’t respond to what he’s saying, and they finish his sentences incorrectly.
As the conversation progressively falls apart, Dan leans over and kisses them. As he does so, the camera follows him, briefly capturing each girl’s face in the frame before settling on Dan again in his original position. He reaches out here, trying to make a connection, and yet, like his other attempts in the film, it ultimately fails. His character thus expresses a desire to connect with other people yet the inability to do so sober. As Dan is speaking the two girls interrupt him, deciding to return to the dance floor. We don’t see them as they say this; instead, the camera stays focused on Dan as he finishes his cigarette and watches them leave. For much of the film, the camera will stay on Dan as the action takes place around him, the focus being not so much on what physically happens in the scene, but instead on how he responds to the action and relates to the people he encounters. We sit and watch as Dan’s figure, alone and smoking what’s left of his cigarette, recognizes the moment as another connection lost.
Half Nelson Poster, Creative Commons
Drey, a 13-year-old black student in Dan’s class, is the only figure in the film he establishes any sort of connection with; what this connection and what the nature of their relationship are the two themselves have trouble defining. It is Drey’s character though who seems able to break these boundaries of his character and in the film’s cinematography. She is the only figure consistently shot in the frame with Dan and in a wide-angle. The wide-angle and long shots in the film serve to establish the connection between the two, forcing us to look at them in relation to each other, to think of them as a pair.
When Dan smokes inside a bathroom stall of the girl’s locker room the camera stays tight on his face (as it does for much of the film), shifting in and out of focus. The tension, power, and significance of this moment though is not in showing Dan as he gets high (one of the few times we see him in the process) but instead in what follows. When Drey discovers him inside the stall, crack pipe and lighter still in hand, a certain bond is formed between the two that will act as the driving force behind the film. The final shot of the scene is a wide-angle (the first wide-angle of the two characters in the film); although the camera has moved back here, Fleck continues to limit his characters’ space, making them appear, similar to the close-ups, trapped inside the frame. He uses the walls and doorway of the bathroom to frame the two, cutting off two-thirds of the screen. The bathroom stalls then take up two-thirds of the open doorway, thus cramping their figures into an even smaller area in which they can interact. The power of the shot, though, lies in what happens in this small space. Drey’s figure kneels over Dan as he lies on the bathroom floor, his hand holding hers as she presses a wet paper towel to his forehead. Although the close-up is generally used for the more intimate moments in a film or as a way to convey something emotional to the viewer, Fleck here uses the wide-angle. It’s after this experience that the camera leaves Dan and shifts to Drey and Drey’s story; their stories intertwining as she becomes the second half of the narrative. For the remainder of the film, the two characters will be thought of only in relation to each other; even when they aren’t pictured together, or when Fleck crosscuts between them, they still seem present in their absence. As both characters learn throughout the film, this bond, this connection is complex; it challenges and blurs their roles as student and teacher, child and adult. Drey’s role in the film is never as a tool for Dan to overcome his addiction (that isn’t Fleck’s intention), but instead as a figure that Dan connects with, that pushes him to recognize and understand the direct and indirect effects of his addiction. Like Dan and Drey, we too are never entirely sure of how to define their relationship, and Fleck doesn’t seem to want us to. Instead, what’s important to see is how this experience breaks the isolating boundaries of the close-up, forming a bond that brings them together. Although Dan still appears confined within the screen, trapped in his half nelson, he is no longer alone; Drey has joined him inside the frame.
1. Creative Commons, <http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/54/Burns_Half-nelson.jpg>
2. Creative Commons, "P373" (Flickr) <flickr.com/photos/ 49503116561@N01/251634787>
Currently Watching: Alice (Svankmajer, 1988), Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai, 1995), Gonzo (Gibney, 2008), Edvard Munch (Watkins, 1974), Scratch (Pray, 2001), PCU (Bochner, 1994), Vive le Tour (Malle, 1962), Next Friday (Carr, 2000), Frenzy (Hitchcock, 1972), The Secret of the Kells (Moore and Twomey, 2009)