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Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic inner-city junior high school teacher who inspires his students to challenge the status quo. Though he keeps it together in the classroom, Dan has a serious drug habit. He keeps his lives precariously separated, until one of his troubled students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), catches him getting high after school. From this awkward beginning, Dan and Drey stumble into an unexpected friendship that threatens to undo them or provide the vital change they both need to move forward with their lives. Directed and co-written by Ryan Fleck.

 Half Nelson

I’ve never wrestled, like on a mat with an actual opponent or anything. But I remember being really fascinated with the concept of the “half nelson” hold for a long time now. The idea that you’re only half stuck, where in a “full nelson” you’re totally and inescapably stuck, the half nelson seemed to provide a glimmer of hope for one in its grasp. It also made sense to me that other things (not just people) could put us in half nelsons too: addiction, government, corporations, school, family, ex-girlfriends.... And when my filmmaking partner, Anna Boden,
and I began developing the script for our new movie, it felt like all of us were getting pinned in a George W. Bush half nelson.

In the lead up to Bush’s invasion of Iraq there was massive public resistance all over the world. Millions of people took to the streets in protest. Anna and I were among them in New York City with a few other friends. On one hand, it was incredibly thrilling to be a part of this enormous act of protest (taking place months before the first bombs were dropped), but I was also troubled by the feeling that none of it mattered. Of course, I always love chanting “Bush, you liar! We’ll set your ass on fire!” or getting lost in the rhythm of the marching drum section, or laughing at the hilarious antics of the Billionaires for Bush radical street theatre, but when it was all over, we just went home. I don’t mean everybody. There were thousands arrested in courageous acts of civil disobedience, and dedicated activists who used the march as a tool for organizing and building momentum for future acts of resistance, but I wasn’t a part of that. I just went home, back to my life as an aspiring filmmaker.

The war began and I continued to attend protests, but I couldn’t get over the fact that it just wasn’t enough. I wondered how one person, alone, could actually make a significant impact on the world. The character of Dan Dunne (played by Ryan Gosling) was born out of this frustration—a man who felt equally frustrated, caught between his idealism and his own hypocrisy. And though the story evolved into something more personal—a man wrestling with other things, like a secret drug habit and a somewhat inappropriate friendship with his 13-year-old student—the political frustration this story emerged from, and that many of us continue feeling today, remains crucial to Half Nelson’s landscape.