Dan Dunne, the teacher, has the split personality typical of many functioning addicts. In class, he is direct, honest, and empathetic with his students. He poses as something of a Marxist radical, teaching his history class “dialectics” and reviewing highlights of the civil rights, anti-war and other struggles of the past 50 years. You can see that the students, when they are not bored, like him and respect him.
But as soon as school is over he becomes a different person, scoring drugs, hanging out in clubs, lying to his family and friends, and living the life of the lumpenproletariat. It’s clear that the dialectic of life and death is at work within him, and life is losing.
When Drey finds him out, a very complicated dance begins. She has been trying to live a straight life. Her older brother is in jail for drug dealing. Her dad uses drugs and is not supportive. Her mom is clean but locked into a dead end low wage job that keeps her away from home too much. Drey tries to stay clear of the friendly neighborhood dealer and keep focused on school. The discovery that her admired teacher is a user has a powerful impact on her feelings and her life choices.
It would be unfair to give away the rest of the plot. The acting is first rate. Shareeka Epps as Drey is totally believable and honest throughout. Ryan Gosling as the young teacher turns in a devastating portrait of a manipulative addict in the grip of self-deception and on his way to self-destruction. His radical political posturing in the classroom is only a figleaf for his sick personal life and his destructive impact on the community. If you needed reminding that our addictions have consequences for other people, Half Nelson is a powerful statement, all the more so because it avoids all moralizing.