Graduation Recommendations: A Small Act and Half Nelson

I have been a student or an educator  for nearly all of my life, and I remain invested in the experience of the classroom. Teaching is an extension of learning and being a student, and I loved being a student and all that it entailed: gaining knowledge, listening to others who were excited about and invested in the topics and disciplines, and debating and discussing ideas in a semi-structured environment. 

My experience as a student, grad student, instructor, and professor at a variety of institutions has gifted me with what I consider to be an extensive perspective on education and how students learn.  While this perspective assists me in my current future educational endeavors, it colors my judgement of the myriad of films that deal with or focus on education, students, and teachers.  While I really admire Peter Weir, I cannot stand Dead Poets Society (1989); I remember hating it the first time I saw it, and the passage of time has not lessened my antipathy toward it. However, as graduation season comes to a close, I do have two education-centered film recommendations: A Small Act (2010) and Half Nelson (2006).

A Small Act, produced by HBO films and directed by Jennifer Arnold, tells two intertwined stories.  First, it chronicles the life of Chris Mburu, who, thanks to a small scholarship, was able to advance through primary school in Kenya, go to Harvard Law School, and become a United Nations attorney.  Mburu’s life represents the perfect distillation of what everyone believes an education can do.  Not only did Mburu manage to make himself successful despite his and his family’s extreme poverty, he uses his position and education to currently assist other Kenyan youth achieve what he achieved.  It may well sound trite, but Mburu, in ways small and large, tries to make the world a little bit better for those who need a better world. 

The second story that really unites the documentary’s various parts is the story of Mburu and the Swedish woman, Hilde Back, who provided him with the scholarship.  Back had seen an advertisement and sent in some money.  She did not know to whom it went or how much good it had actually done.  And this is the “small act” that sparked an enormous positive change.  Mburu’s and the film’s purpose is to show how something small and seemingly innocuous can lead to hopeful, wonderful results.  Had Back and Mburu been less appealing and charismatic, the documentary would have suffered.  But both individuals are genuinely pleasant and uplifting, and their eventual meetings and interactions are a rare sentimental joy.

Arnold’s documentary is sentimental without being sappy, nor does the film attempt to say that every Kenyan child’s life can be radically transformed through a small scholarship and some schooling.  It is well aware of the immense challenges facing those children, yet it remains positive in the face of those challenges.  Arnold also lets Mburu and other Kenyans tell the story of their struggles to educate students in Kenya.  She wisely avoids the tendency to preach to a “third world” population about how it should better itself.  There is nothing that A Small Act does to make itself a stunningly visual piece of innovative cinema, but it is a well done, uplifting piece.

While it may seem initially strange, I also find Half Nelson to be uplifting.  The film, directed by Ryan Fleck and written by Fleck and Anna Boden, centers on the struggles of a crack cocaine addicted teacher, played by Ryan Gosling, and the oddly inspiring and symbiotic relationship that he develops with an intelligent student, Drey (Shareeka Epps).  Half Nelson avoids many of the “white teacher in an inner city school” clichés that have dogged other films.  It does not preach about inequality or racism in a way that makes the intended audiences, whom I suspect to be white and middle class, feel better about themselves.  In telling the story of Dan Dunne (Gosling), it showcases how extremely difficult and immeasurable education can be.

One of Fleck’s strengths, which is as apparent here as it is in his follow-up, Sugar (2008), is the ability to capture the small personal interactions in which people must decide how to act toward one another.  I would say that Fleck and Boden are ethical filmmakers, and their film about this middle-school teacher is a lesson in ethics.

Aside from a crippling drug addiction, Dunne is everything that anyone would want in a middle school teacher.  He is energetic, smart, dedicated, and caring.  His intellect and ambition leads him to use dialectics to teach U.S. History to his students.  (He is obviously not “teaching to the test”: good for him.)  Dunne’s students react positively toward him even as the drugs tear him apart personally and professionally.

When Drey, a particularly dynamic and independent student, finds him high in a bathroom, she and we recognize the frailty and instability in Dunne’s life and the lives of those whom he is educating.  Dunne makes a lot of bad decisions, yet we are made aware of his talent and potential, so neither we nor Drey give up on him, no matter how low he sinks. 

In one scene, Dunne is hammered at a bar.  A father of a former student recognizes him and thanks him for the inspiration he provided for his daughter, who is now in grad school.  Dunne’s inability to respond embarrasses all involved; it is at this moment that Dunne’s perplexing nature is crystalized.  He is obviously capable of producing those small, wonderful acts that can inspire positive change, yet he is failing himself and others.  

Gosling’s performance as Dunne is remarkable and was worthy of the Oscar nomination it garnered.  Simultaneously self-absorbed and caring, Gosling’s eyes and expressions can deliver electric charm or drug-addled haze.   

In a quite dissimilar way, Half Nelson echoes some of the strongest themes in A Small Act. Both highlight the precarious and often individual nature of education.  The small acts of charitable woman in Sweden or an energetic middle school teacher cannot be quantified or systematized into rigid tests.  We can only watch and hopefully emulate. That is how I learned.

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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