Half Nelson follows Dan Dunne, a high school teacher and barely functioning crack addict with a fondness for dialectics, the study of how opposing forces lead to change. So here’s a contradiction for you: 26-year-old Ryan Gosling, who grew up in the same Mickey Mouse Club cast that spawned Britney Spears and gained mainstream fame starring in the cheesy teen weeper The Notebook, has just received an Oscar nomination for his startlingly honest performance as Dunne. That ought to change some minds, if nothing else. The Academy has a soft spot for people portraying addicts, but Gosling’s work in this intimate indie carries none of the grandstanding that seems to plague the form. Instead, he turns Dunne into an exhausted shell, hollowed out by hangovers and barely able to muster a facial expression. The actor’s greatest success comes in finding the balance between competence and collapse: The character still has to go to work, coach girls’ basketball, function around his family. Wiping his nose on his collar, clapping his hands constantly in an effort to stay awake, Gosling adopts a dry, recalcitrant demeanor that’s both seductive and heartbreaking — Dunne may be disappearing, but it’s impossible to let him go.
Mouseketeering aside, Gosling has been pursuing mature, challenging roles for years: In his breakout performance in 2001’s The Believer, he played a Jewish neo-Nazi; then he earned raves as a cold-blooded killer in 2002’s Murder by Numbers. After playing another murderer in 2004’s The United States of Leland, Gosling told EW, ”I got sick. I went to the doctor, and after talking to me he said I wasn’t sick. He pulled out his prescription pad and wrote down: ‘Try a light comedy.”’ While Gosling might not want to ignore medical advice, we selfishly hope he maintains his passion for the heavy stuff.