Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Half Nelson

I finally saw Half Nelson last night. A tremendous film about a white progressive teacher teaching black youth at an inner city school. As he devolves into a serious crack addiction, he clings to the only thing that won't die -- his unlikely friendship with a female student.

I'd actively avoided the film. When your main character is a white, well-meaning liberal teaching history in an inner city school, you're going to get preachy sooner or later. Add drugs and you'll have difficulty not sailing that ship into the shoals of escapism from white guilt. No matter how sensitive and well-drawn the characters, I just knew that sooner or later he'd be busting down a door and saving her from an evil drug lord.

But it wasn't like that. Not at all. It's a beautiful, well-written film. It can teach us a lot.

This movie had to deal with some heavy expectations (see above). The filmmakers clearly didn't want to make that film. So a lot of making it was AVOIDING that easy, hackneyed interpretation. I want to point to three issues here.

First, structure. The white liberal drug movie set in the inner city makes fairly straightforward use of the three-act structure. In other words, it's predictable. You'll see the well-meaning liberal teacher. You'll get a nice inciting event, act break, midpoint, blah blah blah. It'll be darkest before the dawn -- his students reecting him and running off to a life of crime and inhumanity. And he'll save the day. Yada yada.

So the writers had a task here. Subvert that. Subvert it quick. And keep subverting it. And use it too.

What do I mean?

The audience is EXPECTING these beats. You're expecting a high point, where it looks like the teacher might get off drugs and make things work. It doesn't come -- and so your pulled into the character. The events of the script are open: you can't necessarily predict where the plot is going, because it's more of a life shape. Things fall into place as they go. It's open to interpretation. When we see the teacher stepping over the line physically with the student at the dance, we learn to watch the moment, rather than check the mental box for midpoint.

The teacher will likely get fired. We know that. It isn't the point. The viewer is still cradled in the plot, but not as a passive observer. You need to watch carefully since you have no idea what's coming next.

Second, character. One of the most interesting moments for me was when the teacher DOES have the face off with the drug dealer over the fate of his friend and student. He knows he has no moral ground to stand on. But he's got to do something. And he says that: "I'm supposed to do something, right?!"

What happens? The drug dealer is also a complex character. He's not just evil. He is -- in his own way -- looking out for her when he brings her into his business. And when the teacher keeps fighting his losing battle to stop him, he realizes that they do share something. They both want what's best for her. He invites him into his house (and yeah, gets him high).

It's an incredibly dramatic shift. And while you'll find evidence of it on the written script page, it's really the hard work of some determined screenwriters to produce this set up in the script *up to* that moment.

Third, dialogue. How do a teacher and student speak about the teacher's drug habit in real life? They don't. And virtually none of the dialogue in this movie is driven by the screenwriter's desire to get the issue down on the page. It's driven by the set up. There's not a single moment of 'stop doing the drugs or you'll die'.

Many screenwriters would insist on that scene, or at least not see a way around it. What happens when you do away with it? The audience member wonders what's going on with the kid. They remember that fear of seeing your teacher in a non-school environment. They remember the first time they really saw into the world of adults. They remember when they lost a friend to something they couldn't stop. They remember feeling powerless in their own environment.

It's an astonishing thing when a movie can have us both dig that deep into our own past AND get us that involved in a character.

And isn't that why we go to see movies?

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