I was 30 minutes into Ryan Fleck's compelling drama before I realized it was the sort of film I'd normally reject on spec: inspirational white teacher befriends and guides an African-American student in a tough Brooklyn junior high. But Half Nelson isn't anything like the standard Hollywood connect-the-clichés, feel-good trip to school. The fact that Teach is a basehead kicks it right off the studio lot, but this downbeat character study is more than the sum of its easily sensationalized plot points.
Dan (Ryan Gosling) is a great teacher. He assumes the natural intelligence of his students, and goes off the books to engage them. "Opposing forces," he counsels them in a civil-right lesson: All history is the struggle of opposite sides. He has them call out example from their lives ... "black and white," "student/teacher" ... but he might as well say, "Look at me." Because Dan is an addict ... a full-time user. And this compulsion is as much a part of him as his aptitude for teaching and his sensitivity to his charges.
In a chance encounter that's shocking, pathetic and ultimately touching, one of Dan's students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), learns of his drug abuse. No stranger to drugs, her discovery displaces Dan from the lofty, unknowable position of "teacher," and thus lets the two begin a tentative friendship.
The other vague father figure in Drey's life ... she lives with her hard-working single mom ... is Frank (Anthony Mackie), a drug dealer who knew her brother (now in prison). Frank is kind to Drey, even protective of her. Like Dan, he sees in her potential ... in this case, to be a member of his drug crew. Naturally, Dan and Frank distrust each other's influence, and Drey is left to sort out the imperfect support each mentor offers.
Race, class, drugs, questionable adult relationships with children, willful self-destruction ... these are tough subjects to tackle without becoming preachy, maudlin or exploitive. But remarkably, Half Nelson, adapted from a script by Fleck and producer Anna Bolden, manages to be restrained and matter-of-fact. Fleck is unafraid of silence, and such scenes are profoundly evocative.
Half Nelson is another notch on Gosling's belt of mesmerizing performances. His sad, sweet Dan draws us in, even as we despise him for the mess he's making. Epps makes her debut with a refreshingly naturalistic performance in a tough role that demands she be both vulnerable and hardened.
If Half Nelson errs anywhere, it's during a somewhat clumsy scene toward the end, where Dan and Drey have a too-convenient encounter. But Fleck recovers the film's pervasive drifting toward the inevitable. There's no pat resolution, yet there has been change: Dan and Drey have each moved a little bit forward this way, perhaps a little bit backwards that way.