Half Nelson offers an opportunity to marvel, once again, at the dazzling talent of Ryan Gosling for playing young men as believable as they are psychologically trip-wired. In a performance spectacular and ''invisible'' at the same time, the Canadian-born former child actor, who blew the roof off five years ago as a neo-Nazi in The Believer (and then went on to make The Notebook halfway palatable), stars as Dan Dunne, a charismatic, dedicated inner-city Brooklyn junior high school teacher by day. By night, though, he's something else just another white, middle-class crackhead.
Dan, in other words, is a disaster waiting to happen, and a heartbreaker, too: He cares about his kids (most of them African-American) with the fervor of a valiant inner-city educator but with none of the cliché heroics we've seen throughout Stand and Deliver history. Instead, when he wastes himself at night, he's a wreck the next day, too (both in the classroom and in the gym where he coaches basketball). And that vulnerability doesn't go unnoticed by Drey (newcomer Shareeka Epps, a poised, powerful match for Gosling's intensity), a prematurely wise 13-year-old who has seen drug dealing up close in her own family.
There's no easy way out of Dan's self-imposed headlock of self-destruction and disillusionment. Half Nelson conspicuously offers no tidy resolution or concluding uplift, which only makes the movie that much more trustworthy, and the unflashy, documentary-style filmmaking more artful. Working from a script he co-wrote with Anna Boden (shot three years ago as a short called Gowanus, Brooklyn), first-time feature director Ryan Fleck keeps the story low to the ground, organic, honest. In response, every choice the star makes is fresh, from the way his Dan rubs his bloodshot eyes to how he attempts to straighten up his crummy apartment. Without ever appearing to act, Gosling is the most exciting actor of his generation.