Teaching at an inner city middle school can be stressful, but Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) handles the kids under his tutelage with ease, engaging them in classroom discussions, bantering about their lives, even coaching the girls' basketball team. He's the kind of teacher you wish all your middle school teachers had been -- interesting, fair, and not condescending to his students just because they're kids. Yes, Dan is the perfect teacher, while he's on the job. It's after work, when he brings out the crack pipe, that his dark side comes out.
Dan, the protangonist of Half Nelson, is living a double life: Responsible schoolteacher by day, crackhead by night. An idealistic young man caught in the throes of a reality he doesn't know how to handle, Dan deals with his stressors by making them go away for awhile. He thinks he's got it all under control, and, like a lot of addicts, maintains the illusion of control on the surface, for awhile -- until the day one of his students, Drey (newcomer Shareeka Epps), walks in on him in the locker room post-game, prone on the floor, crack pipe in hand.