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From Sidney Poitier to James Edward Olmos to Michelle Pfeiffer, film history is full of tough, do-what-it-takes teachers who walk into unwelcoming odds and mold

Half Nelson
Dir. Ryan Fleck; writ. Fleck, Anna Boden; feat. Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Curnen, Karen Chilton, Tina Holmes, Collins Pennie (R)

young minds. Even when they’re honestly inspirational, many of the movies telling their stories aren’t much in the art department; at worst, they’re manipulative schlock.

Half Nelson is about as far from the esteem-building, cheerleader-for-education flick as you can get. In its political stance, its attitude toward race, and its desire to create characters who are more than functionaries in an inspirational equation, it stakes out artistic ground while ensuring that it won’t become any sort of mainstream hit.

Ryan Gosling, who has been very good in mediocre movies (Murder by Numbers, for instance) and finally gets a worthy vehicle here, stars as Dan Dunne, whose dirt-like name suits him. Bleary-eyed, unshaven, and wearing slept-in clothes, he stands in front of the classroom looking like the bottom of the teacher-applicant barrel. What he’s saying, though, is something else entirely: Talking of dialectics and turning points, he ignores the school-approved curriculum in an attempt to show his pupils that they are participants in history and in charge of their own lives.

Dunne’s own life argues against that lesson. On his off hours, he’s a crackhead who knows he’s destroying himself but can’t muster the strength to care. His social life consists of drunken trysts in nightclub restrooms and even more sordid get-togethers in cheap hotels.

With Gosling in the part and sympathetic director Ryan Fleck behind the camera, this premise alone would make for a compelling film. But Dunne’s character is balanced by another whose situation inverts his. Where he started with advantages and has found himself near self-destruction, his student Drey is a black teen who, despite growing up in the worst circumstances, has a seemingly inextinguishable spark inside her.

Shareeka Epps, the newcomer who plays Drey, has a sly charm that is instantly recognizable to anyone who has known a teenager who can’t quite hide her good nature behind a sullen mask. She’s often stifling a half-smile; her eyes are curious even when drooping lids say she’s seen it all. When Drey stumbles across Dunne hiding, too high to stand up, after a basketball game, they bond immediately, if uncomfortably.

Their unfolding friendship has just enough conventional drama that it’s easy to imagine what a studio would have done with the material. Fleck, on the other hand (with co-screenwriter Anna Boden) touches lightly on conflicts instead of hammering them home; while there are plenty of morals to be found in the story, he doesn’t dictate how viewers interpret them. Like Dan Dunne in front of the chalkboard, Fleck would rather get an audience’s brain in gear than tell it where to go.

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