Dan Dunne is a history teacher in a Brooklyn school populated by poor Hispanic and African-American kids. Though he’s an inspiring teacher in the classroom, Dan has a drug problem that is spiralling out of control. When Drey, a young student, catches Dan smoking crack in the school toilets, the pair form an uneasy and unlikely alliance. Half Nelson received an Academy Award nomination for Ryan Gosling’s performance as the troubled teacher.

The film was submitted for classification in January 2007 and the main category defining issues were:

  • strong language
  • drug use
  • sex

There are around 14 uses of the word ‘f**k’ in the film and these made a 15 classification necessary. BBFC Guidelines allow for ‘frequent use of strong language’ at 15, but at 12A, the ‘use of strong language must be infrequent’.

Drug-taking is a major social concern and this is reflected in the way that drug use in film is treated by BBFC examiners. BBFC Guidelines on drug use at 15 permit drug-taking to be shown, but forbid the promotion or encouragement of the activity by the film as a whole. Drug-taking is the major theme of Half Nelson, with the main character, Dan, revealed to have a drug problem at the very beginning of the film. It focuses on the battle he fights every day with his addiction – the need to take drugs and the need to clean up and bring some structure back into his life. As the film progresses, we see Dan begin to lose this battle.

The film explores rather than exploits his addiction, analysing its effects rather than presenting explicit detail of the actual drug use. Most of the drug use occurs off-screen and there is only one scene in which we see the character using drugs. As the film quite clearly presents the terrible downside to drug addiction, it could in no way be said to promote or encourage drug use.

At the beginning, it appears that Dan is able to hold down a good job and a stable life despite his addiction, but it soon becomes clear that this is a lie and we see the true desperation of his situation. For all these reasons, examiners felt the film could be passed 15.

Half Nelson contains a couple of scenes of sexual activity, both of which are linked to drug use. In the first, we see Dan and a fellow teacher snort something off-screen and then have sex. The sex is presented through a montage, with a very brief glimpse of breast and the impression of some thrusting. There is no indication that the use of drugs has made the experience more intense or pleasurable. The second scene occurs later in the film, after Dan has begun to lose control. Here, he pushes the other teacher onto the sofa and begins to fumble with her clothing. She lashes out and eventually punches him in the face. The scene is presented as evidence that Dan is spiralling desperately out of control and does not offer any illicit thrills. He expresses remorse afterwards and resolves to tackle his problems. At 15, BBFC Guidelines state that ‘sexual activity may be portrayed but without strong detail’ and this falls well within that category.

There was some discussion amongst examiners about the mild sexual tension between the film’s main characters. This increases throughout the film, as the bond of friendship between Dan and 13 year old Drey strengthens. However, it is not made clear whether either of them has any sexual intent. In fact, there is every indication to the contrary, as he has an on/off sexual relationship with the fellow teacher.

Given the lack of detail in the sex scene, examiners felt that it did not need to be mentioned in the BBFCinsight, which reads ‘Contains strong language and hard drug use’.

Half Nelson was also passed 15 on DVD and was selected for National Schools Film Week 2007.