Yes, Ryan Gosling is remarkable in this riveting portrait of a crack-addicted teacher coming apart at the seams. But for all the praise heaped on his Oscar-nominated shoulders, let’s not forget that Ryan Fleck’s beautifully-crafted drama is essentially a two-hander – a study of opposites, if you will, to borrow a line from one of the free-form lectures with which Gosling’s Dan Dunne regales his inner-city pupils.
For Half Nelson would exert a fraction of its hold without Shareeka Epps’ Drey, the troubled schoolgirl who, after discovering Gosling passed out in the locker room, becomes his confidante, accomplice and conscience. As displayed in Gowanus, Brooklyn, the 2004 short from which Epps and this film sprang, she is a screen natural whose quiet, older-than-her-years integrity supplies the bedrock for her co-star’s garlanded turn. Kudos too to Anthony Mackie for bucking stereotype with his drug-dealer character, a smoothly insinuating seducer whose approaches partially stem from a genuine concern.