I first saw Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson” a few years ago and, admittedly, was not impressed. Perhaps the film fell victim to high expectations. Critics and cinephiles put it on a pedestal for so long, citing Ryan Gosling’s Academy Award-nominated work as evidence that he amounted to more than just a Tumblr heartthrob. Yet I was unmoved.
For whatever reason, I decided to check it out again given Gosling’s recent Oscar nominated turn in “La La Land” – and a general reversal of fortune for his career altogether. Further inspection of “Half Nelson” reveals a remarkable two-sided performance that fully captures the actor’s versatility. From my early ’10s vantage point, I probably saw a reflection of what I consider Gosling’s worst tendencies: an exaggerated machismo where his smolder goes hand in hand with the stoicism. When contextualized within his films of that time – “Drive,” “The Ides of March,” “Gangster Squad,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Only God Forgives” – the turn as a junior high history teacher who resolutely refuses intimacy and embraces drug needles feels like the genesis of a dour period.
But after the exuberance of “The Nice Guys” and “La La Land,” Gosling’s cheerier streak opened up another side of “Half Nelson” that now vaults into “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. His Dan Dunne has a streak of incorrigible impetuousness, particularly when digressing from the assigned curriculum to instruct with a more philosophical slant on the past. He projects such confidence when he dwells in his element, a fitting and necessary contrast to his moments of vulnerability to cocaine. Reconciling the highs with the lows presents a difficult task for any performer, and Gosling nailed it at just 26 years old. He’s also fortunate to create this character under the auspices of a thoughtful script from Fleck and Anna Boden, who avoid all the pratfalls of drug addict or other self-destructive protagonist narratives.