At first glance you could write this film off as yet another teacher vs. pupils "drama" (see Dangerous Minds, or the recent Freedom Writers). There is a skinny white teacher, Dan (Ryan Gosling) sitting in front of a racially-opposite classroom. Skinny white teacher wants to change people. Skinny white teacher struggles. But the struggle has nothing to do with the kids, or the other teachers. It's because skinny white teacher happens to be addicted to crack.
So begins a low key drama following Dan's attempts to change and his unlikely friendship with a thirteen year-old pupil, Drey (Shareeka Epps). The pace is undeniably sluggish - this is no "here's your plot, this is an event, isn't it all tied up and easy to follow" film. But at some point in the first thirty minutes you become completely and utterly absorbed with the characters. This is mostly down to the actors.
Ryan Gosling's best actor Oscar nomination is entirely justified. The 25 year-old fills his performance with little ticks, cracking his knuckles, wiping his lips on his shirt collar, wiping the sweat from his druggy brow. He excels as a teacher, his rapport with the children full of charm and wit - believably so. And under everything you can sense his bubbling frustration. The guy talks constantly to his students about the importance of change, yet is painfully aware of the flawed world he lives in, and miserably unable to shake his own addiction.
His unexpected friend is played by the frighteningly brilliant teenager Shareeka Epps, who plays Drey as a confident, streetwise teen with a gentle streak of vulnerability as she's pulled between a friendship with the flawed but caring Dan, and a drug-dealing, yet potentially more stable, friend of her family.
A combination of stupendous acting, a temperate touch from writer/director Ryan Fleck that creates a mellow mood to match that of the characters, and some flickers of comedy and watery-eye woe, Half Nelson pushes through all expectations of the genre and emerges as an original, engaging piece of work. It's not your usual multiplex-filler, but stick with this film and you will be highly rewarded.