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‘Half Nelson’ is Gosling’s breakthrough

Crack addict teacher film plays like the dark side of ‘Dead Poet’s Society.’ By John Hartl
Ryan Gosling stars as a teacher with a crack addiction in "Half Nelson."
Ryan Gosling stars as a teacher with a crack addiction in "Half Nelson."Thinkfilm

Just a quarter of a century old, Ryan Gosling has already demonstrated the versatility of a veteran actor.

Born in London, Ontario, on Nov. 12, 1980, he’s been an early-1990s Mouseketeer on “The Mickey Mouse Club” (which also introduced Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears), the title character in “Young Hercules,” a neo-Nazi skinhead in “The Believer,” troubled killers in “Murder by Numbers” and “The United States of Leland,” plus a couple of high-school football players (in “Remember the Titans” and “The Slaughter Rule”).

But Gosling’s biggest hit so far was a glossy, mawkish 2004 soap opera, “The Notebook,” that turned off fans of his more daring work and hinted that he’d gone Hollywood. Fortunately, he’s followed it up with Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson,” an excellent low-budget drama that puts him in a good position to earn a best-actor Oscar nomination. It’s his strongest performance — and his best-written role — to date.

Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a Brooklyn schoolteacher with a natural talent for challenging inner-city middle-school students. His rambling lectures, which touch on segregation, prison riots, dialectics and the Civil War, inspire his students, including the 13-year-old Drey (gifted newcomer Shareeka Epps).

Dan also happens to be a crack addict. When Drey catches him getting high in the locker room, she keeps his secret and develops a non-judgmental bond with him. He coaches her on the girls’ basketball team and encourages her to escape her circumstances. But her father has proven unreliable, her brother is in jail, her mother is overworked and she finds herself drawn into the street life Dan hypocritically abhors.

If this sounds like the dark side of “Akeelah and the Bee” (or “Dead Poets Society” or “To Sir With Love” or any number of other sentimental teacher-student movies) that’s very much how it plays. Dan and Drey’s friendship couldn’t be more heartfelt, but in the end it’s not quite enough to overcome his habit or her limited options.

For all his good qualities, Dan can’t quite separate his addiction from his profession; as his evasive relationship with an ex-girlfriend suggests, he may be beyond rescuing. Drey is just starting her own downhill path, and she may already be too far along. The movie isn’t exactly hopeless, but its realism is compelling and hard to shake.

Writer-director Fleck, who co-wrote the script with Anna Boden, won a Sundance Film Festival award for his 2004 short, “Gowanus, Brooklyn,” which is the basis for “Half Nelson” (the new title was inspired by a wrestling term that Fleck interprets as meaning you're just on the edge of being "totally and inescapably stuck”). Unlike some expansions of short films, it never feels unnecessarily inflated. If anything, 106 minutes is not enough time to spend with these characters.

Epps seems wise beyond her years, always suggesting Drey’s possibilities while never underestimating the forces that are working against her. Charismatic, self-destructive, bursting with youthful energy and even a touch of  romantic idealism, Gosling brings a troubling complexity to his role. Their relationship, and all that it implies, is haunting.