When the nominations for the Best Actor Oscar were announced earlier this year, Ryan Gosling was the lowest profile candidate on the shortlist. Best known for his starring role opposite Rachel McAdams in the romantic weepie 'The Notebook', Gosling was nominated for his performance in the drama 'Half Nelson', an independent film which has been lavished with praise and awards in the US. Given that he was up against Forest Whitaker in 'The Last King of Scotland', the fact that Gosling didn't win isn't too surprising. But after seeing this you'll be in no doubt that his time will come.
Dan Dunne (Gosling) is an inspirational history teacher at a Brooklyn school. Making his classes attention-grabbing and fun with his use of dialectics, Dunne's methods get his students to think for themselves about America and its history. And his dedication to those under his care even extends to coaching the girls' basketball team after school. Dan Dunne is a teacher most kids would like to know. He's also a cocaine addict.
So far he has been careful to make sure that his two very different worlds don't collide - fooling his pupils, colleagues and himself. But Dunne's secret is discovered when one of his students, Drey (Epps), catches him in the throes of a crack high after a basketball game. Bizarrely, the incident doesn't signal the immediate end of Dunne's career but the start of a friendship with the troubled teen. Each can see the huge potential in the other, but do either of them have the power to break free from what's dragging them down?
Gosling deserves much credit for a performance which pulls your emotions in different directions from scene to scene. His portrayal of the idealistic but beaten down Dunne evokes sympathy, anger, hope and resignation with his excellent co-star Epps effectively the entire audience reaction rolled into one character.
But both Gosling and Epps deserved a better script. While 'Half Nelson' is worth seeing, first-time writer-director Fleck misses opportunities to make it an even more powerful and affecting film. Some scenes would have benefited from more dialogue; others could have been tighter and having gone to the effort of introducing Dunne's family in a dinner scene, Fleck should have devoted more time to them, instead of succumbing to the American Indie pitfall of letting other shots go on far longer than they have to.
However, through it all - and some very sluggish pacing - Gosling and his young co-star are great. You'll leave the cinema thinking that bigger things lie ahead for both of them - and if you're an optimist their characters too.