The crack addict in question is Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), history teacher and basketball coach for an inner-city high school. Every day, he musters up the dedication to bring out some measure of scholastic enthusiasm out of students who typically sleep or talk among themselves. He has the audacity to treat students as equals, maintaining a clear teacher-student relationship while allowing these kids to approach him like they might one of their friends. His class subjects generally involve radical (and racial) politics stretching from the 1860s Civil War to the 1960s Civil Rights and into the '70s; in between some scenes, Fleck and Boden cut to brief clips of students addressing the camera, discussing various moments of social and racial protest in history as news footage of the events plays over their proud recitations of retained knowledge.
How could such a good, beloved teacher be a crackhead? We've been conditioned, even by "indie" films, to accept characters at face value and that certain traits are simply incompatible. But there's no denying that his teaching is effective and his enthusiasm infectious, even if he uses his free time after a basketball game to smoke in the girl's bathroom. At this stage we meet the second major player of Half Nelson, Drey (Shareeka Epps), a 13-year-old who discovers a zonked-out Dunne in the stall.
Half Nelson has all the trappings of a self-absorbed stab at social consciousness and indie appeal -- a teacher trying to impart a typically dull subject unto disaffected urban youth, hand-held "realism," a child wise beyond her years -- but it never once lapses into the realm of the ordinary and tired. Epps, 17 at the time, is believable as a younger teen, albeit one forced to mature faster than most: her deadbeat father is never around and her brother is in jail, but the mother has learned from her experiences and now works as an EMT. Though the mother has overcome her own problems, her rebirth leaves the daughter alone, vulnerable to the forces around her that have not dissipated simply because Drey's mom turned her life around. Chief among these destructive influences is Frank (Anthony Mackie), a drug dealer for whom Drey's brother worked before his arrest for selling.
What's truly remarkable and, tragically, original about these characters is that we are allowed to like or at least understand the appeal of all three. Frank is not an evil, vicious dealer, and he's just as kind and supportive of Drey as Dan; when she exerts the self-control not to beat a kid for stealing her bike, Frank's confusion at her leniency is matched by a certain sense of parental pride in her judgment. But he also pushes her toward the life that sent her brother to prison, a life that holds its immediate pleasures for Drey but never overwhelms her common sense and her knowledge of where the life will end. On the other side of the struggle for Drey's future is Dan, who fully understands the irony of a crack addict attempting to sort out someone else's life but decides to help anyway. Dan's family life is almost as turbulent as Drey's, swapping out working-class concerns for middle-class pressures. His girlfriend enables his addiction, and drugs stunt his emotional growth: characters often ask him about that book he was writing, only for him to deflect the questions. When he finds himself in the nightmare of a family reunion, his father asks him if he's "still teaching ebonics down at that zoo." For all the maturity and wisdom he displays in the classroom, at home Dan is just as confused and immature as his student compatriot.
In his classes, Dan teaches dialectics, his students throwing out examples like "right and left" and "teacher and student" to prove they understand him. But the entire thrust of Half Nelson is that life does not conform to either/or situations; shortly before engaging in a coke binge, Dan rages against the vast percentage of Americans who bought the lie of Saddam's connection to Al-Qaeda and who believed even by '06 that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but the film's true political statement is that Bush's black-and-white morality, his literal proclamation of "You're either with us or against us" was nothing but a load of bullshit crammed down our throats to exploit a tragedy for political loyalty.
Watching the film now, however, one could draw interesting comparisons with Lee Daniels' absurdly overrated Oscar vehicle Precious. Daniels' film depicted an ignorant, hopeless young woman set on a path of questionable redemption by a dedicated teacher. Drey, through Epps' sure-footed performance, is, for all her vulnerability, anything but a mindless weakling. She knows exactly what could happen to her at this crossroads, but because the answers in this movie are not so clear she does not know which direction to take. Her teacher does not light the way, because he is stuck in a similar situation; in this film, the student and the teacher genuinely do enrich each other's lives, more capable of steering the other through the fog than themselves.
In Precious, the protagonist suffers numerous atrocities, but her greatest suffering, as subtly and horrifically implied by the script and direction, concerns her race. But the races of the white teacher and black student here are simply another meaningless dialectic that distracts from the full complexity of life. Mackie and Gosling are magnetic, capable of adding depth and pathos to their characters simply through their charisma. They would each command any other film with their performances, but here they act as the angels and demons on the shoulders of the true protagonist, Drey. That we can never be sure which character is the angel and which is the demon speaks to the elliptical, ambiguous genius of Fleck and Boden's script. Epps gives one of the great performances by a young actor, regarding the world with a steely glance that awaits the worst yet still capable of feeling and acting like a kid; some of the film's most memorable scenes involve her trading the most groan-worthy knock-knock jokes ever conceived with Dan.
Half Nelson treats all of its characters -- black, white, adult, child -- with respect and maturity, allowing us to empathize with and accept these characters as real even as the directors use purely cinematic methods of juxtaposition and contrast. When it reaches its ambiguous ending, both hopeful and a bit deflated, the film forms its own dialectic with its socially conscious peers: between exploitative, "feel good to feel bad" awards bait and honest, thought-provoking filmmaking. What a shame it is that so few movies fall on the side of the latter.