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Half Nelson Reviews

Even if you're sure you've had enough of indie dramas about drug addicts that all too often serve as showcases for young actors hoping to prove their chops by getting raw, make an exception for this superb drama from New York-based filmmakers Ryan Flek and Anna Boden (YOUNG REBELS). In addition to an inspired and, yes, raw performance by Ryan Gosling, the film centers on a beautifully rendered friendship between his character, an drug-addicted Brooklyn history teacher in a predominantly black junior high school, and a 13-year-old student that's as unexpected as it is touching. To all outward appearances, Dan Dunne (Gosling) is a model teacher: In addition to an enthusiastic approach to history that makes even Hegel's dialectical theory sound interesting to a classroom filled with easily bored eight-graders, Dan spends his afternoons coaching girls' basketball. But what no one knows is that Dan is a stone-cold junkie whose nights are spent in a strung-out haze. After copping drugs from a neighborhood pushers, Dunne returns to his squalid apartment and snorts or smokes whatever he was able to afford (though heroin appears to be his drug of choice), then heads out for a meaningless night spent in the company of barflies. Somehow Dan rouses himself each morning in time for school, but the precarious balance he's managed to strike is knocked out of whack when his junkie ex (Tina Holmes) reappears in his life, but only to announce that she's clean, sober and about to get married. Soon after, Dan breaks one of his own rules by firing up his crack pipe in the girls' empty locker room after a night game and collapses in a bathroom stall where he soon found by one of his own students, Drey (newcomer Shareeka Epps). Drey is no stranger to drugs — her older brother (Collins Pennie) is currently in prison for dealing, and his former partner, Frank (Anthony Mackie), continues to keep an eye on Drey and her divorced mother (Karen Chilton) — and she sits with him until he feels well enough to make it home. When Dan next sees Drey at school, neither one mentions the incident. The secret they now share, however, inevitably draws them together and changes both their lives for better and for worse. Rich in characterization and detail, Flek and Boden explore what it means to be a responsible adult with remarkable sensitivity, but it's Gosling's finely textured performance and his interaction with the uncannily self-possessed Epps (a star in the making) that really nails it. The appropriately fractured and fuzzy original soundtrack is by Canada's Broken Social Scene.