Having watched "Confessions" and "Half Nelson" both in a short period of time, it was impossible not to compare the two. Both movies are about teachers - teachers who are slightly unhinged, slightly off. However, though both movies deal with a similar central character, the two movies could not be more different.
Japan's Oscar submission from last year, Confessions, is a dark and frightening tale of a teacher, Ms. Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) whose young daughter Manami was killed by two students in her homeroom class. Ms. Moriguchi decides to take revenge on the two boys in what becomes a tense web of mind-games and manipulation, structured in a series of "confessions" from one of the accused students, the mother of one of the accused students, and a sympathetic and introspective young girl in the class.
Half Nelson is the story of Brooklyn junior-high school teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), whose philosophical approach to teaching inspires his students but isn't quite in line with the curriculum. However, despite his success in the classroom, his own life is simply a mess - he has a debilitating drug habit, poor relationships with others, and he cannot seem to turn his life around, until he meets Drey (Shareeka Epps), an impressionable young girl with problems of her own, who he befriends.
The most striking difference between the two movies is how each of the imperfect teachers deals with the problems that surround their life - rather, how each teacher uses their class as a kind of therapy. For Gosling's Dan, his students are the only thing that keeps him going, the only part of his life in which he is able to have some control and success. On the other hand, Ms. Moriguchi's problems are caused almost completely by her class, and her path to equilibrium consists of the complete destruction of at least two of her students.
One of the most interesting illustrations of this contrast between the two characters is how the "chaos of the classroom" is portrayed. Throughout the entire exposition of "Confessions", Ms. Moriguchi has to fight to be heard over the obnoxious chatting, texting, and outright disrespect that comes from her pupils, making us completely sympathize with how much she hates these kids. Though Mr. Dunne's students are just as noisy and rambunctious, their din is one of creativity, of excitement and of learning - an almost healing bedlam.
In fact, one of the most frighteningly brave aspects of "Confessions" is how it has no qualms with portraying children as pure evil. These kids are unflinchingly rude, manipulative, dishonest, hateful, and even murderous. It's an exaggeration, perhaps, but surely all teachers have felt the kind of disdain for their young pupils that the audience feels for the kids onscreen. It's a brilliant technique that creates an unyielding discomfort.
Moving past the content itself though, both movies are cinematically commendable as well. Matsu and Gosling both give fantastic lead performances, and the supporting casts, be they the evil children of "Confessions" or the supportive students in "Half Nelson", are really strong. "Confessions" is stylish to the point of being almost arbitrarily so, but for the most part it works, and "Nelson"'s camera work is unique and smart, often times focusing not quite where you'd expect.
Okay, so, neither of these movies really have anything to do with each other. They don't really belong in the same genre, and their plots are radically different. But they're both such fascinating portrayals of teacher-student dynamics that they become unintentionally perfect companion pieces, both of which I highly recommend.
Have you seen "Confessions" or "Half Nelson"? Which portrayal of classroom dynamics did you prefer? Is there an even better school-related movie? Sound off below!