Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) teaches history in a Brooklyn junior high, where his deviation from the standard curriculum (into areas of politics, philosophy & life) makes him more popular with his students than with the school’s principal. Sharp and engaging in class, Dan struggles with his own demons in his personal life. The fragile separation between his two worlds finally breaks down when he’s discovered collapsed in the school’s locker room by a thirteen-year-old student (Shareeka Epps).
What follows is an unexpected friendship, but one which is very believable, thanks in no small part to the terrific performances of Epps, wonderfully understated as the old head on vulnerable young shoulders, and the auspiciously talented Gosling, simply heartbreaking as the idealist hell-bent on self destruction.
Appealingly personal and steadfastly un-melodramatic, Ryan Fleck’s impressive debut feature neatly sidesteps the pitfalls of the inspirational classroom drama and favours an altogether wittier and credible approach. Underscored by the particular ambience of its Brooklyn setting, and a judicious soundtrack including original compositions by Broken Social Scene, HALF NELSON is smart, moving, politically engaged and brings a welcome freshness to a familiar theme.