Take a Hike

‘HALF NELSON' & ‘OLD JOY'

Ryan Fleck’s downbeat school drama, Half Nelson, is the kind of indie effort that is truly a creation of the film festival. Fleck first did the film as a bargain-basement short, then, after winning Sundance’s 2004 Grand Jury Prize in short filmmaking, he got some funding together and took a second, feature-length whack at the same materia. He returned to Sundance this year and won Best Film.

Over the decades, the myth of a teacher toiling in a harsh urban environment has spawned such classics as Blackboard Jungle, To Sir with Love, and Stand and Deliver. The story line is so familiar it is burned into our collective unconscious: new teacher survives harrowing rites of initiation, then dishes out inspiration, challenge, and heart, transforming a ragtag crew of reprobates into a corps of proud achievers-salvaging kids society had no faith in, and winning their eternal gratitude.

In recent years, boredom with the old formula, or perhaps simply our jaded and ironic zeitgeist, has wrought havoc with this formula; iconoclastic films such as Election or Blue Car portray the teacher as tempted, sinning, or merely bored to death, slogging through an eternally changeless routine (that montage in Election where we see Matthew Broderick delivering the same civics lecture in a dozen different shirts). In Half Nelson, Fleck and his co-writer Anna Boden take this demythologizing to the extreme. Their protagonist, a...

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.