Picks and Pans Review: Half Nelson

updated 08/21/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/21/2006 01:00AM

Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps
DRAMA

Ryan Gosling just keeps getting better. This phenomenally talented young actor, who once pranced as a Mouseketeer alongside Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake and is now just 25, offers a heartbreaking portrayal of a gifted teacher with a secret drug habit.

In Half Nelson—a small-scale, compelling drama written and directed by first-timers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden—Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a maverick history teacher at a Brooklyn junior high school. Dan challenges and motivates his inner-city students to think for themselves. But outside the classroom, he sucks on a crack pipe to escape his own demons and disappointments. A student (Epps, a promising newcomer) discovers her teacher's secret, and the two form a supportive friendship.

With his intensity and commitment to a flawed character, Gosling reminds one of Sean Penn or Edward Norton, but he's less showy. It's all in his eyes, which reflect every emotional shift and bit of pain his character feels. (R)

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