Ever since Blackboard Jungle, there has periodically appeared in American movies the story of a headstrong teacher taking on an inner-city school and whipping his or her students into shape, employing either militaristic tough love or a mushy appeal to the delinquents' artistic hearts. Half Nelson can't help but recall some of the more questionable "white savior saves black kids" elements of the genre in its story of an earnest, idealistic young man, Dan (Ryan Gosling), coaching basketball and teaching history and civil rights in a free-range style that chafes against the strict core curriculum of his New York City middle school. The movie quickly shatters the idealism of its hero with the murky truths of reality: Dan is a crack addict ideologically leaning on an untenable brand of '60s liberalism. However, simply subverting stereotypes does not guarantee emotional depth or thematic complexity. The film's source of power lies in the budding relationship between Dan and Drey (Shareeka Epps), a bright student from dismal circumstances. Drey is entering a critical crux in her life, when the emotional confusion of budding puberty could easily spin into the downward spiral that sent her older brother to jail for drug dealing. After Drey discovers Dan passed out in a school bathroom, their friendship develops within the uncertain confines of student/teacher and child/adult as they both try to save each other. The directing and writing by Ryan Fleck and superb naturalistic performances by Gosling and Epps captures the subtle push and pull of two damaged, needy, and intelligent young adults looking for the emotional bonds -- of friends, parents, and siblings -- they can't find from their outside social environment. Half Nelson is touching without being mawkish, morbid, or unrealistically uplifting; the title could refer to the way Dan and Drey compliment each other's strengths and weaknesses or the wrestling-grip hold their personal demons have on their psyches.