From the opening frames, it's clear that Half Nelson has no intentions of conforming to the uplifting clichés of the noble teacher genre that the storyline might imply, sketching, instead, a deft portrait of Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), a onflicted young teacher. While there's nothing original about liberal white teachers - and the audiences who love them - Dunne is a challenge to all those around him, bringing a string of personal problems, including the conviction that he can remain functional while ingesting various drugs. He's also in possession of an unapologetic left-wing (not merely liberal) streak of a kind rarely seen in American films, and director Ryan Fleck fleshes out Dunne's political views through a series of class presentations, where the students speak about key incidents in the civil rights movement or the death of Chile's Salvador Allende.
Gosling's detailed performance - his character is often distinctly unlikeable, and yet there's something to root for at the core - is well complemented by that of Shareeka Epps, the remarkable young actress who plays a student who has a spiky friendship with her teacher; Epps played the same character in Fleck's initial short treatment of the subject, Gowanus, Brooklyn. As well as extracting credible performances from his two leads, Fleck has a strong sense of a particular community on the fringes, where the young students are caught between stark choices about their futures. The only downside, perhaps, is the insistent need to convey 'realism' by use of a shaky handheld camera, an aesthetic choice hardly needed when the director and his co-writer Anna Boden have such a sharp eye for the messy complexities of human behaviour.