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I was talking with my friend Garth several weeks ago, and I asked him my usual question. Have you seen anything good? This led to a discussion of how mediocre most of this summer’s offerings have been, though I made a point of sticking up for Little Miss Sunshine and Conversations with Other Women. Garth, however, countered with this small movie he had seen called Half Nelson. I hadn’t even heard of it, but I noted it on my calendar.

I’m glad I did, as it’s a rich independent drama about a white teacher in a tough, urban school and the connection he makes with one of his students. Yes, I realize the plot sounds like a cliche we’ve seen Hollywood churn out a thousand times before, but that’s what sets Half Nelson apart. It takes the cliche and turns it on its head; in this case, the teacher is the one who needs the help.

Dan (Ryan Gosling) is a young history teacher who’s idealistic enough that he thinks the best way to teach jr. high history is to use Hegel’s notions of the dialectic. Teach kids about opposing forces and synthesis, and they can work out for themselves how these manifest themselves in world events. While Dan’s students don’t grasp all of the intricacies (obviously), his charisma and ability to relate to them on their level has them paying attention. And periodic oral reports the students give show some of the material is sinking in.

He’s also a hit with the girls he coaches on the basketball team. One in particular is Drey (newcomer Shareeka Epps), a quiet girl who lives with her single mom and misses her brother who’s in prison for dealing drugs. Drey’s relationship with Dan takes an unusual turn when she happens upon him smoking crack cocaine in a girl’s bathroom.

Unlike almost every other teacher-student story, this revelation doesn’t immediately alter their relationship. Dan asks her to keep it quiet and their shared secret creates a bond between them, but there’s no sudden breakthrough or crisis. Instead, the film slowly develops the friendship, focusing on the little meetings, the brief conversations. Drey struggles with how to connect with a teacher she obviously likes, and Dan both latches onto and pushes her away as he battles his addictions.

Long-time readers know that I appreciate movies that portray and reveal something about the world we live in, and Half Nelson is one of those. The drug taking might be lurid at times, but the rest of the film is true to life. The film’s dialogue is especially taut, with Dan and Drey often dancing around the issues until Drey cuts through the fog with a pointed question. And though the classroom scenes make up only a small part of the film, they capture both the joy and frustration of teaching, and how well-intentioned idealism can also be a cover for someone who’s making it up as he goes along.

Best of all is the character of Drey. She acts just like a 13-year-old: telling her mom who works long hours, “You don’t have to worry about me”; trying to act like she doesn’t care if someone comes to her basketball game; masking a smile because she knows that smiling makes you vulnerable. There’s a particularly fantastic scene where Drey takes money from a man we find out is a local drug dealer (another outstanding performance from Anthony Mackie). The money is meant for her mom, but Drey can’t hand over the money directly. She has to put it in a jar, and her mom takes it out when Drey isn’t looking. Her mom wants to protect Drey from what’s going on, but Drey already knows even more than her mom does, and the lack of transparency only serves to divide the family. That lack of transparency finds its equivalent in a late scene with Dan and his own family, where the jokes and laughter hide the basis of his addictive lifestyle.

gosling2-resized.jpgRyan Gosling has already established himself as one of the best young actors today. All the teen girls I know swoon over his role in The Notebook, and film geeks still talk about his fearless performances in The Believer and Murder by Numbers. Here, he’s absolutely compelling and, more importantly, believable as a flawed man who doesn’t quite know how to get his life together but still wants to make a difference in those around him.

The filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have also chosen a particularly appropriate visual framework. The Super 16mm format, which is blown up to 35mm, gives a grainy texture to Andrij Parekh’s cinematography, amplifying the grittiness of the classroom and streets. The handheld camera conveys a fly-on-the-wall quality, a closeness that matches the intimacy of the narrative. The camera often takes a half-second to come into focus on the tight close-ups of the characters’ faces, as if we have to adjust to knowing so much about a person. The movie also isn’t shy about bringing up Dan’s left-wing politics and how those are both a spur and a crutch in his life.

As you might imagine with a movie that’s this true to life, there are no easy answers or happy endings. But Half Nelson is a satisfying and touching portrait, a reminder of what independent drama can do so well.