In Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling stars as a crack-addicted junior-high teacher. That premise immediately digs itself a hole from which most filmmakers could never emerge. How do you avoid the sentimental pitfall of having this sad-sack redeemed by his eager, innocent students? How do you keep the powerful contradictions of his everyday life from lapsing into an excuse for actorly histrionics? For director Ryan Fleck, co-writer/producer/editor Anna Boden, and their remarkable cast, the solution is to underplay every scene and let the central character's ambiguities set a rocky course for the movie to follow. Just when the melodrama seems ready to come to a boil, Fleck and Boden pull back the reins and resist the expected payoffs. They understand that Gosling's predicament can't be solved overnight, if at all. Redemption only comes that easy in a Robin Williams movie.
The opening scene finds a half-naked Gosling scraping himself off the floor of his dingy apartment for another day teaching history at an inner-city middle school. He can barely summon up the energy for this ritual, but his unconventional methods engage his students, and they in turn serve as the lifeline that keeps him tethered to society. After troubled student Shareeka Epps catches him in the locker room with a crack pipe, the two develop an uneasy alliance that could mean salvation for both of them. A latchkey kid with an overburdened single mom and an older brother in jail, Epps gets pursued by dangerous father-figure Anthony Mackie, a local drug dealer who feels guilty about her brother serving time for him. Gosling tries to protect her from Mackie, but his position is obviously compromised.
Brazenly ignoring the curriculum, Gosling encourages his students to think about the nature of change and how history results from push-and-pull between opposing forces. Of course, he's talking more than a little about himself; much as he labors to compartmentalize his teaching and his habit, the conflict eventually enters the wrong arena. Gosling excels at playing contradictory characters like this one, having kick-started his career as a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer, but here, his inner turmoil rarely gets vocalized. It's a remarkably subtle performance, supported by Fleck and Boden's insistence on keeping the drama low-key and cutting scenes several beats before they drift into false clashes or sentimentality. And in that spirit, they've ended with a denouement that's funny, touching, and in every way earned.