Matt Dillon stars as Henry Chinaski, a stand-in for Charles Bukowski, who wrote the book upon which Factotum is based. Basically a series of seriocomic episodes, the film focuses on Henry, who drifts through life and several jobs. He walks off in the middle of a few tasks -- from delivering ice to polishing statues -- only to be found later hunched over a bar. He sticks for a while with one girlfriend, Jan (Lili Taylor), who seems to like him better when he's unemployed. Norwegian director Bent Hamer (Kitchen Stories) gives Factotum a kind of dingy warmth, where time and boredom stretch out into infinity, but in a reassuring kind of way. Dillon narrates, chomping on the rich dialogue with a Bukowskian drawl.
Ryan Gosling, who normally works with a kind of self-satisfied smirk on his mug, steps up several notches with a beautifully concrete performance made of guts and soul. He plays a white teacher in an inner-city school. Drugs are prevalent; each kid probably knows or is related to someone who deals, and even the teacher himself uses. One student, 13-year-old Drey (Shareeka Epps), discovers his secret and they become unlikely friends. You wait for the Lolita stuff to kick in, but it never does; Half Nelson is a rare movie about relationships without gimmicks. Epps and Gosling perform several scenes together, many in long takes, and while he is superb, she matches his every move. Director Ryan Fleck makes his feature debut.