Comparative Essay: Half Nelson and Requiem for a dream

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Title: Half Nelson
Director: Ryan Fleck
Language: English
Year: 2006
Critical Reception: Ryan Gosling was nominated for an Oscars for best actor. Kudos from Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum, Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, nominated for Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival
Psych Index: Addiction, DSM Disorders, Social relations
Synopsis: The film was based on an earlier short film made by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck in 2004, “Gowanus, Brooklyn”. Fleck directed the screenplay he and Boden reworked for this American feature film on the unlikely friendship between an inner city teacher, Dan Dunn (Ryan Gosling) and his student, Drey (Shareeka Epps). His dedication to his students and his idealistic approach notwithstanding, Dan was secretly a drug addict barely holding it together to keep up with the routine and the demand of his job. When his nighttime habit bled into his daytime job, Dan was caught by the thirteen year old Drey in the school’s girls changing room, getting high. The two characters formed an awkward, but warm friendship that teetered on the dangerous territory of student-teacher extracurricular relationship.

Title: Requiem for a dream
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Language: English
Year: 2000
Critical Reception: Ellen Burstyn received a 2001 Oscar nomination for best actress. Kudos from the New York Times' A. O. Scott.
Psych Index: Addiction, DSM Disorders
Synopsis: Requiem for a Dream (Wikipedia) was based on a novel of the same name written by Hubert Selby, Jr. that was published in 1978. The story began in the summer, with Harry (Jared Leto) in his mother’s (Ellen Burstyn) old folks apartment trying to pawn the TV off so he could score some drugs for himself and his best friend, Tyrone C. Love (Marlon Wayans). Harry’s girlfriend, Marion Silver (Jennifer Conelly), was also a drug addict trying to divorce herself from her wealthy parents. Harry and Tyrone decided to support their drug habit and invest in their future by becoming drug dealers. Meanwhile, Sara received a call purported to be from a television company, claiming that she had won a guest spot on television. Excited with the possibility of becoming a guest on the infomercial program she often watched in her apartment, she began dieting in order to fit into her favourite red dress, the one she wore to Harry’s graduation. Failing to stop herself from thinking about food, she sought the help of a doctor who would prescribe her amphetamines to help her with the diet. As the seasons rolled by, what could go wrong in the lives of addicts did go wrong. The film, true to its title, was a requiem for dreams unrealized and lives ruined in the pursuit of these dreams.

There are few topics in cinema more popular than drugs and addiction. While there is no formal “drug” genre, the cinematic obsession with one of the darker sides of humanity certainly deserves its own subcategory (a list of drug films can be found on Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia; Wikipedia). Whether they are political commentaries or personal moral tales, films dealing with drugs and addiction provide a canvas upon which social problems that manifest themselves in the lives lead by the characters can be examined. Half Nelson (Corwin et al., 2006) and Requiem for a dream (Barenholtz, Flynn, Simchowitz, Weschler, & Aronofsky, 2000) are two of the major releases in recent years dealing with drug addiction. This essay will explore these two films in depth, and one character from each film will be analyzed through Individual Psychology lens.

While Requiem for a Dream focused on the reasons behind the lives lead by those inflicted with addiction and the dire consequences of their habit, Half Nelson was more concerned with the struggle to connect with others, to find a place for oneself in a world moved not by one person, but by various groups colliding and coexisting. I responded emotionally to both films, though I found Half Nelson to linger with me more after the film was over. I have the opportunity to interact with many individuals with addiction who would exhibit many of the problems portrayed in both films. The face rubbing, body twitching and anxious pacing body language exhibited by Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson looked authentic to me. I know someone who had to face the possibility of having his legs amputated due to the infection brought on by his multiple drug injections, much like what Harry had to actually go through in the film. The idea that these characters were just chasing a miscalculated dream complicated by the effects of their drugs made the situations depicted in Requiem seemed rather hopeless. Half Nelson, on the other hand, looked at those who are still hanging on to their place in the world. It was rather hopeful message that help could be found even in the most unexpected place.

Requiem, for the most part, was technically spectacular. Aronofsky gave the audience a taste of what the world would be like as perceived by drug addicts by using quick editing, split screens, distorted lens, and extreme close ups. Hallucinations were either lyrically beautiful in soft colour (when Harry dreamt of Marion on a look out into the ocean), or manically terrifying in jarringly lit rooms (when Sara hallucinated that her fridge was attacking her). The idea was to experience the lives of these characters to gain some perspective of what they were going through. The film was a culmination of what could potentially go wrong in the lives of addicts; the misfortunes piled upon these characters in a way that, though entirely plausible, was overkill. The helping professionals were shown to be either indifferent or harmful to the characters. Sara was given amphetamines and valium carelessly by a doctor, got committed against her will, and in a confused state signed a document that allowed the hospital to put her through electric shock. When Harry sought help in a hospital, the doctor called the police instead of treating his wound. His family members or loved ones could not help him, for they, too, were in the same spiral as he was. Each character was too busy filling up his or her needs to really have a mind to take care of each other, despite good intentions. The film could've benefited from a more balanced portrayal of the helping profession, and it would also have been a much better film if the second half wasn't filled with an assault of misfortunes.

Not every drug addict is on the streets or planning for his next meal like those depicted in Requiem. In Half Nelson, Dan had a stable job and a clean love interest. The depiction of drug use in Half Nelson was less aggressive and almost completely devoid of sensationalism. The camera stayed still for the most part, lingering in certain places, and speeding up with some close ups when Dan got high. Rather than going for hyper-realism like Requiem, Half Nelson stayed grounded with linear time and normal spatial perception. It gave the audience more of a spectator role than Requiem did. Curiously, there was no sign of any helping professional, or the justice system (with one exception of the scene where Drey went to visit her brother) having a direct impact on their lives, though the society in general made an impact on them on a larger, more historical sense.

Because of the racial focus of the film, one had the sense that the creators of the film wanted to de-criminalize the black community. African-Americans often are given loud, stereotypical roles to portray in films. Half Nelson featured an intelligent, empathic, introverted young black girl, struggling to keep herself out of trouble while connecting tenuously with the two men in her life, neither on the surface was a proper role model for her. Her brother appeared loving and loyal to his family and friends, even when he was deemed a criminal by the justice system. Most surprisingly, Frank, the one who introduced Drey to the world of drug dealing, was loving and respectful towards Drey. There was seemingly a network of people reaching out and looking out for each other, even as each struggled to keep her own head above the water. As a psychology student watching the film, however, I was at times unclear of what could have happened to bring about Dan’s self-destruction. I wish that the film had given a bit more background possibilities for Dan’s dependence on drugs.

From an Individual Psychology perspective, it was understandable that the two films ended up where they were. Community feeling – the sense of belonging to this world – is essential to mental health (Dreikurs, 2006). In Requiem, all four characters felt a need to feel whole by connecting with their loved ones, but they were impeded by their respective mistaken beliefs. Harry believed that the profit from dealing drugs would enable him to care for himself and his loved ones, not factoring in the destructive toll of the drugs he was using. Marion believed that she could find the love that she needed from her parents in Harry and the promises he made. Tyrone went from bad to worse deals, thinking that success was just waiting around the corner for him. Sara believed that the happiness she once felt with her family could be relived if she could fit into her dress and be celebrated by others. Because of the failed connections and the subsequent lack of community feeling, it was not surprising that they ended up isolated and broken people.

Half Nelson, on the other hand, portrayed a network of individuals reaching out for each other. Those working from Individual Psychology framework believe that humans are creative beings; we have the power to affect our future, even when circumstances may favour certain paths (Stone, 2006). The conditions surrounding the inner-city youth may have made it easy for people to get themselves into trouble with the law. Yet, each character in the film created his own consequences, coming up with ways to deviate ever so slightly from expectations. Drey could have become yet another bully, but she chose not to give into violence needlessly. Frank could have forced the vulnerable Drey into the darker roads of drug trafficking, but he allowed Drey the opportunity to get out. Dan made himself believe that his place was insignificant in the grand scheme of things as he slowly threw away his career to drugs. He made one positive decision to reach out for Drey, and that decision may have saved his life.

Both films were generally well received at the time of their respective releases. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Ellen Burstyn and Ryan Gosling for their respective roles (Wikipedia). The two films focused on very different aspects of drug addiction, with Requiem for a dream leaning more towards the experiential aspect and Half Nelson leaning more towards political and personal influences. The drug users in the two films also differed in their social status, with Dan (Half Nelson) representing the more upwardly mobile drug users and the characters in Requiem for a Dream representing the bottom-of-the-ladder users. Although the sum of the films was less than their parts, they were still well worth watching for their effective portrayal of the devastating effects of drug use.

Dreikurs, R. (2006). An introduction to Individual Psychology. In S. Slavik & J. Carlson
(Eds.), Readings in the theory of Individual Psychology (pp. 45-72). New York: Routledge.
Stone, M. H. (2006). The creative self. In S. Slavik & J. Carlson (Eds.), Readings in the
theory of Individual Psychology (pp. 93-105). New York: Routledge.
Wikipedia. (n. d.). List of drug films. Retrieved February 8, 2008, from
Wikipedia. (n. d.). Half Nelson. (2006). Retrieved February 8, 2008, from
Wikipedia. (n. d.). Requiem for a dream. (2000). Retrieved February 8, 2008, from

Psychological Profiles:
To delve deeper into the Individual Psychology perspective, an psychological profile formulation could be made for one character from each film.

Dan was one of two children; it was not clear whether his brother was supposed to be younger or older. Based on Dan’s characteristics, he may have been the youngest brother who wanted to out compete others (Dreikurs, 2006). He expressed the disappointment that one person could not change the world. This may indicate that he may have had huge plans that never worked out, a characteristic of the youngest child (Dreikurs, 2006). He may have stayed a baby and be spoiled by his parents, as evident by the enmeshed interactions between them. His middle class parents seemed unaware of what their son was going through. His father was perhaps authoritarian, while his mother was likely submissive. Growing up, he may have endured some inconsistent parenting style. The indulgent parents (Dreikurs, 2006) may have created a suffocating atmosphere, resulting in him moving out and avoiding his mother’s calls. The family may have valued success in a respectable career as well as a stable finance. His father spoke rather judgmentally of African-American youth. However, he then apologized for it, suggesting an atmosphere of subtle intolerance towards difference. This may have driven him to seek alternative experience and to teach inner-city youth. He may have believed that men are dangerous and can not be trusted, just like his father. Women may seem to him over-bearing, family-oriented and forgiving like his mother. There does not seem to be a genetic possibility of mental issues in his family, except for perhaps his father’s hinted-at alcohol abuse (possible indication of addictive tendency). He grew up in a middle class family, thus having many opportunities opened to him. He had a steady, stable, stimulating job that he loved, friends that stuck with him in bad times, and a viable love interest whom he respected. Although some pieces of the puzzle seemed to not warrant a drug addiction problem, Dan may have turned to drugs to escape an intolerant, overbearing, success-driven family he grew up with.

Requiem’s Marion Silver also grew up with more money than she knew what to do with it. She seemed to have been the only child, having her needs taken care of by others and at the same time ruling them (Dreikurs, 2006). Her parents showered her with presents and privileges, with little regard for her actual needs. She may have grew up in a family where success was measured by how much money they had. As a child, she may have been at the receiving end of a cornucopia with goods endlessly pouring out. She grew up passive, bored, and discontent with this indulgence. She expected everything to come to her, as she demanded Harry to supply her with money and drugs. Her father may have been a provider, and she may have generalized it to all men as she continued to seek them out for support. Her mother may have used her appearance to get ahead in the world, and Marion may have believed that as a woman she could rely on her beauty to get what she needed. There was no indication of a genetic possibility for an addictive tendency. She had all the environmental opportunities available to her before she ran away from her parents. Marion seemed to have used drugs as a way to make her feel loved. Where life is difficult, the only child may show striking insufficiency (Dreikurs, 2006). It may have led her to further sell herself to support her habits.


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1 Response to Comparative Essay: Half Nelson and Requiem for a dream

August 15, 2020 at 9:42 PM

Thank you for your analysis. Ryan Gosling is my favorite actor of my generation so I have seen all his movies. His work in HALF NELSON is, in my opinion, some of his best ever (I have a very soft spot for LARS AND THE REAL GIRL as well). HALF NELSON also has an amazing supporting cast with the amazing Shareeka Epps and Anthony Mackie as does LARS.

I love a character that breaks your heart and Ryan does that well. I think your analysis of the parents was spot-on too. Whatever happened with them caused him to have serious attachment issues as well.

It seems like the father drank to excess in that little scene. Perhaps the other brother (hard to say if he was older or not) was the golden child and Dan became the black sheep. I can appreciate Dan keeping distance from his family. His father seems racist and doesn't seem to appreciate what Dan is trying to do with his teaching. His mother seems to not pay much attention to him when he is there. Poor Dan is screaming inside for physical and emotional intimacy. He practically tells his life story to every fellow "basehead" (as Anthony Mackie's "Frank" refers to him).

I loved when Ryan was starting out in film and did all these incredible indie films before doing tent pole blockbusters. Some were hard to watch like THE BELIEVER and THE UNITED STATES OF Leland, but he always gives an amazing performance.


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