Half-Nelson (THINKFilm) has a lot going for it, but it may be remembered as the movie that finally made Ryan Gosling the movie star he deserves to be. The wonderfully named Gosling—he looks like a baby goose, gawky and loose-limbed, with a tuft of downy hair—has, at 25, two major roles under his belt: the secretly Jewish Nazi skinhead in The Believer (2001) and the love-struck farm boy in The Notebook (2004). Both movies had some serious problems— The Believer's politics were cartoonishly coarse, and The Notebook fairly dripped with treacle—but Gosling's nuanced performances made them feel weightier than they were.
Gosling is a live wire of an actor, with delicate features and an introspective intensity that brings to mind the young Jason Patric. But he's sharper than Patric, able to leaven heavy emotional scenes with an extra layer of wit. In Half Nelson he plays Daniel Dunne, a 30-something middle-school teacher in a down-and-out Brooklyn neighborhood. Dan is like a superhero in reverse, charismatic and brilliant by day, self-pitying and self-destructive by night. He drinks, smokes, snorts coke with bar pickups, and, when the stress really gets to him, takes the odd hit of crack.
After the reappearance of an old girlfriend who's now happily engaged to someone else, Dan self-medicates with the crack pipe in a locker-room stall after a basketball game. Why he chooses to do this in the girls' locker room is never quite clear, but he's spotted by a student, 13-year-old Drey (Shareeka Epps, a poker-faced marvel of a nonprofessional actress). Drey knows a thing or two about drugs. Her brother is in jail for dealing, having taken the fall for the local kingpin Frank (Anthony Mackie). Drey decides to keep mum about Mr. Dunne's after-school activities, and the two of them begin an uneasy friendship. But Frank, who's taken Drey under his wing out of guilt over her brother, has his own ideas about her future.
One of Dan's pet topics in history class is dialectics, the theory that world events move forward as a result of the struggle between opposing forces. He offers various real-life models of this struggle: the civil rights movement, the assassination of Salvador Allende. But Drey's best illustration of the push-and-pull of dialectics (the "half-nelson" wrestling lock of the title) is her own life. Frank the pragmatic drug lord and Dan the lefty schoolteacher seem at first like polar opposites, but their motivations and methods keep crisscrossing: Dan wants to help Drey grow up right, sure, but he also needs her to prop up his own rapidly vanishing idealism. And Frank may be looking for more cheap labor to exploit, but he's also the closest thing she has to a loving father.
Half Nelson seems fully poised to become a movie we've seen a million times, The Blackboard Jungle with a dash of Stand and Deliver, or Dead Poets Society in the ghetto. But it keeps surprising us, mainly by being consistently smarter and sadder than inspirational-teacher movies usually let themselves be. Gosling (along with director Ryan Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden) understands that Dan is both entitled and suffering, both an asshole and a lost soul. The final scene might be accused of striking too hopeful a note after the bleakness of what's come before, but this is a film that knows something about how hope, when it comes, is always a surprise.