What could be more depressing than a film about the inner-city public school system? How about a film about a crack-addicted teacher in said system, who befriends a lonely student after she catches him freebasing in the girls' locker room. In addition, the lonely student's only father figure is a crack dealer. Welcome to the world of Half Nelson, a film more draining than working your way through the entire Oscar Rodeo.
While the film is amazingly depressing, it is also quite good. Notable local film critic Jason Shamai had Half Nelson as his #3 film of the year. It's very brutal, but the characters are quite realistic: the teacher reading newspaper stories aloud in the break room, Gosling's rehabilitated ex-girlfriend, even his boozy parents. We don't see Gosling descend into addiction; he's an addict, he's been an addict for a long time, and there's no cute or glamorous story about how he got addicted in the first place.
Some of the scenes of his freebase binges are quite funny, especially the one where he manically rants about people who still believe that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. My favorite scene was when Gosling warns the crack dealer to stay away from his student, but can barely believe his own ranting. In the end, it's like watching a car wreck in slow motion, with the only mystery being the extent of the damage when it's all done with.
There are some parallels to The Pursuit of Happyness, in that the central relationship is between an adult and a child, who bond via schoolwork and telling each other terrible jokes. Shareeka Epps is wonderful as the lonely student, and I can't wait to see what she does next in her career, which apparently will continue with Alien vs. Predator: AVP2.
I'd vote for Gosling for Best Actor, but Forest Whitaker is going to win that award. I haven't done the research to be sure, but I hypothesize that this is the greatest performance to date by an alumnus of The Mickey Mouse Club. However, I haven't seen Crossroads, so I'll hold off on making a definitive claim.