Ryan Gosling delivers his Oscar-nominated portrayal of a crack-addicted inner-city history teacher who strikes up an unlikely friendship with one of his pupils. A firm favourite on the indie circuit, this beautifully crafted movie is enriched by living, breathing performances and a plot that is solidly grounded in reality.
Dan Dunne (Gosling) is an inner-city junior high school teacher who somehow summons reserves of enthusiasm to teach his early teenage charges about life.
It helps that he's genuinely driven to impart his wide-ranging knowledge on everything from civil rights to the civil war.
It also helps that he eases the pressure of a poorly-paid job where he has to be in total control with a daily shot of crack cocaine.
One day, Dan makes the mistake of indulging in his habit in school...and is found slumped in a toilet cubicle by troubled student Drey (Epps).
Rather than shop him to the principal, the inquisitive Drey warms to Dan's easy if immature charm and the pair of them stumble into an unexpected friendship.
And that's about it. Director Ryan Fleck's subtle, poignant movie is more interested in the complexities of character than the switchbacks of plot.
Gosling, who impressed so much as a Jewish neo-Nazi teenager in The Believer, lives the character of Dan, a decent liberal crushed by political disillusionment and personal disappointment.
Epps also astonishes as the feisty Drey, a 13-year-old latchkey veteran dealing with the temptation to fall in with a charismatic gangsta and drug dealer played with an authentic swagger by Anthony Mackie.
As Dan loses his already tentative hold on reality, Drey risks being drawn into an adult world for which she is emotionally unprepared.
Together, they find the strength to somehow claw back their lives. Not with bells and whistles, but by the odd glance and occasional smile.
Arthouse beret-wearers will stroke their chins to a point during this intelligent drama which, it has to be said, doesn't exactly zip along.
However, if you drop the pace then there's much to savour in a minutely-observed and richly peopled little character study.