The performances by Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps are among the finest you’ll see this year, and they absolutely make this a movie not to be missed. I believe the script has some very deep flaws –- political material is bluntly and crudely shoved into a few scenes that interrupt the emotional flow and seem to come from a completely different film. (Some critics find these agitprop interludes a strength rather than a flaw, notably Mahnola Dargis in the New York Times and Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly.)
But whatever your reaction to the film’s politics, Gosling and Epps will grab you and they won’t let go. Gosling is Dan, a junior high school teacher, and an excellent one, with a dangerous secret: he has a serious drug habit. Epps is Drey, one of his students, who stumbles in on him when he is getting high, and nonetheless ends up becoming his close friend.
This is the first role since The Believer that has given Ryan Gosling a chance to show just how good he is –- which is to say phenomenally good, one of the best young actors now working. He conveys both the charisma and the scariness in the character, makes us like him but never lets us forget what a screw-up he is.
Shareeka Epps is amazingly believable, a natural performer without an ounce of fakery in her work. If she can continue to develop, she will be a very great actress. But even if she doesn’t pursue a show-business career, her accomplishment here is indelible.
My misgivings about the movie itself have more to do with the limitations of the basic material and structure than with the filmmaking per se. The direction and pacing are very skillful, but the plot has a cobbled-together feel, like an improvisation that is still in process. Still, Ryan Fleck, who directed and co-wrote Half Nelson, is a talent to watch and he no doubt deserves credit for the consistently strong work of the whole cast, including Anthony Mackie as a dealer who is also the Epps character’s protective relative.
See this one as soon as you can –- there is no better acting in any current movie.