Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a 30-something history teacher who gets along well with his predominantly African-American 13-year-old students. Also the coach of the girls' basketball team, Dan's active interest in getting his kids to understand such important events as the Civil Rights Movement is evident-so much so that it occasionally causes friction with the school's principal, who prefers that Dan stick with a more traditional approach to teaching. Dan's demeanor in the classroom, however, contrasts sharply with his home life as he struggles mightily with an overpowering drug habit. Precariously balancing the two worlds, Dan slips up when his student Drey (Shareeka Epps) stumbles onto him getting high in a school bathroom. Their secret understanding leads to a special bond, with Dan's feelings of protectiveness for the girl continually increasing. Left largely alone because of the long work hours kept by her mother and her older brother's incarceration, Drey is open to the friendship with her concerned teacher. Conflict arises in the form of her brother's drug-dealing partner Frank (Anthonie Mackie), who, in his own way, is also looking out for Drey and is concerned about Dan's influence on her.
Never overly dramatic or obviously sentimental, "Half Nelson" is a well-made study of imperfect individuals doing their best to not only survive, but to interact meaningfully with others around them. Buoyed by the strength of Fleck and Boden's tightly-crafted script, the film's leads are given plenty of room to flesh out the complexities of their individual characters. Gosling's Dan remains highly sympathetic throughout his repeatedly poor judgments, while Mackie's Frank rises far above any trappings inherent in a caricatured drug-dealing bad guy. Epps' understated portrayal of the troubled but headstrong Shareeka, too, pairs harmoniously with Gosling, reinforcing the depth of the teacher-student relationship at the heart of "Half Nelson." Starring Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie and Monique Gabriela Curnen. Directed by Ryan Fleck. Written by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. Produced by Jamie Patricof, Alex Orlovsky, Lynette Howell, Anna Boden and Rosanne Korenberg. A ThinkFilm release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 106 min.