Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is an eighth-grade history teacher in an inner-city school deep in the heart of Brooklyn. He eschews the provided curriculum in favor of off-the-cuff, but deeply heartfelt lectures about the importance of understanding history, rather than just memorizing it. He speaks primarily of dialectics, the tensions between two opposing forces. He is torn between his desire to change the world and his increasingly desperate realization that he can't, at least not in the grand, awe-inspiring ways that he envisioned as an eager, idealistic college student. He started using drugs as a way to escape the pain of life, and it has turned into a crutch that bears increasingly heavy loads of psychological weight. In his classroom, which is populated almost entirely by black and Hispanic students, Dan lectures about how the world is structured into opposing forces, illustrating it at one point by arm-wrestling one of his students. His unorthodox approach inspires them during class, but interestingly enough we don't see its effects outside the classroom. The film focuses on Dan and his relationship with Drey (Shareeka Epps), a 13-year-old student of his who catches him in the bathroom smoking crack after school one day. Drey understands Dan's frustrations with life; she is the child of an overworked single mother whom she barely sees, and spending so much time on her own has made her self-reliant, but also hard on the edges.