The impact of Half Nelson on my life…

I saw the movie “Half Nelson” on Friday evening, Oct 27th, at Court Square Theater in Harrisonburg (which by the way is a sweet place), and I walked out of the theater with strong emotions. I’ve been trying to get a handle on those emotions since then, and in the process found two things:

1)It’s not often (in this age of relatively shallow Hollywood movies that have resulted from our relatively shallow culture and our willingness to chuck out large amounts of cash over a long period of time to find something (anything!) to take our minds off reality) that I walk out of a movie feeling intense emotions, and
2)I often don’t pay attention to tracing the emotions to their root, or at the very least spend some time thinking about why I was so affected, and thus walk right back into my life as if the movie and the time spent in it never existed. Given time and other priorities, the movie is often reduced to “good” or “bad” or “mediocre.” And so I place it in the unofficial movie pecking order of my life and move on.

As a result of this awareness, I am going to try to slog through what I thought I saw in this movie, how it moved me, what it exposed in me (honestly!), and how I’ll respond with my life. If there’s one thing I’m tired of in my life, it’s mediocrity and simply occupying a place in the long line of humans who have lived and died on this earth…sucking in my oxygen, exhaling my contribution to global warming, and living a life centered on Nate.

So what did Half Nelson have to say to me?

It’s the story of a middle school history teacher who carries an ideal that he wants to affect at least one person in his life for the better. That’s his goal, and in that mix he carries an unorthodox teaching style where he seeks to have his kids look deeper than just memorizing and regurgitating fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice answers that don’t help his students comprehend and make sense out of reality.

The trouble is, Teacher Dan (Gosling) doesn’t know how to make sense of reality himself. His life is full of mountains and valleys, and he copes with this unpredictable reality with cocaine, crack, and some quick booty without relational attachments. His drug problem exacerbates rather than evens out his bumpy life, and he makes the mistake of smoking crack in a spot where one of his seventh grade basketball players finds him. Instead of ratting him out, though, this girl becomes a positive influence in his life. Maybe she can be the one he impacts for the better? She seems engaged in his class, eager to learn…but in taking her home several times, he sees the lure of the drug trade and urban decay threatening to suck her in.

He tries to be the hero, and fails…continuing to exhibit a hopelessly broken life. But this girl, instead of packing it in and giving up, continues to care about and for him (maybe that’s because she’s got a teacher crush on him…very possible given the nature of emotional attraction for ignoring reality…or maybe she just genuinely cares and wants to be an influence for good in his life). In the mix of things, Dan spends some time at home, where his parents, once Vietnam agitators who had a compelling vision for their lives, have fallen into middle-class numb existence, thinking they’re living out their ideals (while their ideals carry no practical reality) and ignoring reality by medicating themselves with perpetual drunkenness.

This has to be a commentary on the sad state of the American left; pretending to care about problems like poverty and social inequity in general while doing little to nothing about it other than punching a ballot, intellectually claiming to believe that liberalism is the answer for the world’s problems, with no life-altering commitment to either. (this is where I insert my belief that the opposite extreme of conservatism is just as insidious and incompetent and elitist and sad as its polar opposite).

The movie didn’t resolve. No, “I’ve been waiting for you,” or “I’m drug-free and happy for life,” or some heart-warming basketball championship for the girl and the teacher that enables both of them to exorcize their personal demons. And I’m glad.

Running with my idea of the status quo in our society mentioned above, I wasn’t surprised in walking out of the movie theater to see all the endorsing blurbs on the movie poster having nothing to do with the substance of the movie…I don’t know if they’ll be big enough for you to read in the above picture, but the blurbs say, “Ryan Gosling gives an astonishing performance!” and “Powerful. Gosling is among the most exciting actors of his generation!” and “A near-perfect film. The acting is flat-out amazing. Epps is a major find.” Are you kidding me? A movie like this, and all you can talk about is the careers (realized or potential) of the individuals? For my money, I don’t go see a movie because you tell me the actor or actress has an “astonishing performance.” Maybe I’m supposed to; that way I can maintain some degree of separation from the raw reality that this individual movie portrayed, and deny the fact that I see strong parallels in the weaknesses of humanity I share with the teacher. If I maintain that separation, I can walk out of the theater, plunge right back into my life, and forget that I ever felt uncomfortable at certain points as the story got close to MY struggles.

My thought upon seeing the movie poster was, “Finally, a solid movie that doesn’t buy into the movie peer pressure to resolve a big problem with a neat little bow in an hour-and-a-half or less, and I gotta come out of the theater to this?”

And maybe my next thought illustrates how much my ADD mind flits around from idea to idea and situation to situation, but I immediately thought about how this applies to the church. How often, on average, would you say a pastor hears one of two things from the congregation?

1) That sermon was good. Well-delivered.
2) Thank you for what you said. Hearing it that way made me think about (this or that aspect of my life…or this or that weakness…or this or that calling)

I’d guess the average pastor hears the first 97% of the time. Because you and I are enculturated to be surface people…because we’re enculturated to be consumers…and because we’re enculturated not to pay attention to the cries of our hearts; just hop around from entertaining thing to entertaining thing; rate each thing on the 1 to 10 scale of the excitement it offered for you, and refuse to go deeper.

If there’s anything I bring away from Half Nelson, it’s two awarenesses:
1) The system is broken. We are broken. Irretrievably.
2) We need to admit we are powerless to effect any long-term change in the system by ourselves. (because the change will be short-term, and our problems cyclical)

In response to what I consider to be two truth statements, I need to be willing to ask myself and others some questions…deep, searching questions…about how that raw awareness impacts my life. Do I need to alter my life in response to this movie? What did it uncover in my heart? Will I seek to separate myself from the teacher but pointing a finger at his drug habit without pointing a finger at my weaknesses that are crippling me? Does it jog me out of the semi-numb state I exist in much of the time to be deeply invested in something?

The prevailing message screams at me daily, “Stay busy. Forget about the layers. Don’t think about or listen to your heart. Just perpetuate the status quo.” And more often than not, because I’m weak, I give in. I let myself be mediocre. But because God entered the picture, turned my life upside-down, and called me to follow Him, I don’t want to be mediocre any more; I’m tired of being an object for others to manipulate and extract resources from; I want my life to matter.

The question that remains now is if my want will turn into a physical reality. My life will give the answer.

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