As a history teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is popular with his students because he leaves the text books in the bags and brings the importance of history to life, relating events back to his young students even if his superiors object to his organic form of teaching. But what none of his colleagues or students realise is that Dan's life is a mess outside of school as he uses drugs and goes out partying to block the loneliness he feels. But Dan's secret is no more when he is discovered by one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), wasted in the bathroom. Drey's family has been ruined by drugs and drug pusher Frank (Anthony Mackie) who just happens to be Dan's dealer.
I will stop the synopsis there as for a movie about a popular teacher "Half Nelson" is very different to most teacher student movies even if in the classroom the character of Dan Dunne is inspirational through throwing out the text books. And as such what happens in "Half Nelson" is not entirely predictable even though it has familiar elements such as Drey coming from a home which has been damaged by drugs and with no role model could end up just another statistic.
So what do you get in "Half Nelson"? Well to start with you have Ryan Fleck's visual style, the kind of fly on the wall style camera work which swings between characters, wobbles and basically never stays still for a second as if it was an observer with a short attention span and an inner ear infection. It isn't the most annoying camera work I have come across and certainly the right choice for this type of movie but it is a style which can end up becoming distracting which this does once every so often.
But in truth I am side stepping the most important thing about "Half Nelson" and that is the performances with Shareeka Epps bringing a youthful rawness to her performance as Drey whilst Anthony Mackie does cliche cocky but in an organic style. Yet the standout performance and what makes "Half Nelson" interesting comes from Ryan Gosling who constantly grows as an actor and brings depth to every role he plays. As such here as Dan Dunne he is completely convincing as a teacher who loves what he does but outside of work has a big hole in his life which he fills with drugs and slowly the habit is encroaching on his work. You quickly understand that Dan needs a reason to sort his life out and something to shock him into doing something.
What this all boils down to is that "Half Nelson" is an interesting movie with a different sort of storyline to most movies involving students and their teacher. But what makes this movie is Ryan Gosling who once again throws himself into a role to bring a level of authenticity to the character which so few actors genuinely manage to get.