Ryan Gosling is up for an Academy Award for his performance in "Half Nelson," and he deserves the nomination. Gosling is one of the best actors of his generation, and here, as an inner-city high-school teacher, he equals the work he's done in other small films such as "The Believer."
Yet even this can't make "Half Nelson" more than an average movie. Its many problems are exemplified by its title, which is hard to pin down in the actual story.
Gosling's Dan Dunne is the coach of the girls' basketball team (no wrestling moves here). Subverting the white-guy-saves-the-inner-city scenario, Dan is caught late one night by a student while indulging in crack cocaine in a locker-room toilet stall. The student, one of his star players, Drey (Shareeka Epps), needs a ride and helps him take her home. They form a tentative friendship.
Drey is also getting to know another father figure, a neighborhood drug dealer (Anthony Mackie) who gives her unique after-school math and chemistry lessons. It's interesting for a while to see Drey tugged between these two symbiotic forces, the user and the pusher, though it's not clear whether writer-director Ryan Fleck ever figured out where his setup was going.
Fleck originated this material in a short film, and the attention it garnered prompted this remake into a feature-length production. Drey is never in much danger, nor does she face any challenges or decisions, things we come to expect in a major character. Dan is similarly stunted. We believe them and their surroundings both provide some powerful and moving scenes. But in the end we are left searching for what it all amounts to. If anything, "Half Nelson" proves that a movie has to be more than a character study. Good acting is only half of what's needed. (R) ** S