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Young but definitely award worthy

He embraces complicated characters and hits a new high with ‘Half Nelson.’ By John Hartl

All four of this year’s Oscar-winning actors — Reese Witherspoon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, George Clooney — were first-time nominees.

That doesn’t mean they were unknowns or novices. In fact, each of them had built up an impressive backlog over the past decade. If they weren’t so young, their Academy Awards could almost be interpreted as lifetime achievement awards.

That could also be the case with Ryan Gosling, whose performance as a drug-addicted Brooklyn schoolteacher in “Half Nelson” is generating Oscar talk now that it’s going into general release. Whether you knew him first as a Mouseketeer on “The New Mickey Mouse Club” or as television’s “Young Hercules” or as Rachel McAdams’ lover in “The Notebook,” this versatile Canadian actor has been around. And he’s only 25.

Just three months ago, Gosling won the Seattle International Film Festival’s prize for best actor for his role in “Half Nelson.” Directed and co-written by Ryan Fleck, the movie is also being discussed as a best-picture candidate.

True, it’s a small “festival” film produced on a low budget, it’s not playing many multiplexes, and it hasn’t demonstrated its box-office potential. But that was also true of “Capote,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” last year at this time.

Gosling’s chances are good because he’s done so much so soon, and he’s done remarkable work even in the weaker films he’s chosen to make. Many critics loathed Nick Cassavetes’ “The Notebook” (2004) for its schmaltzy Nicholas Sparks storyline, but Gosling and McAdams apparently persuaded plenty of moviegoers that the picture was this generation’s “Splendor in the Grass.” It remains his biggest hit.  

Gosling also tried to rise above the script in “Murder By Numbers” (2002), which might have been this generation’s “Compulsion” if its director, Barbet Schroeder, had exercised more control. In this modern variation on the Leopold and Loeb case, Gosling played a manipulative high-school killer who sets out to commit the perfect crime. Gosling’s twitchy performance may have been over the top, but there’s probably no other way to play the role as it was written.

Gosling did some of his best early work in two movies that were barely released: Henry Bean’s “The Believer” (2001), about a Jewish neo-Nazi skinhead, and Andrew and Alex Smith’s “The Slaughter Rule” (2002). In the latter, he plays a rowdy Montana teenager whose desperate football coach (David Morse) turns out to be a problematic replacement for his deadbeat dad.

They’re complicated characters, and Gosling embraces their complexity. While the skinhead is merely repulsive at first, Gosling emphasizes his youth, intelligence and a tragic split nature that leads to suicidal threats. The alienated football player bears more than a passing resemblance to James Dean’s character in “East of Eden,” but Gosling avoids impersonation and underlines the boy’s essential gentleness.

In retrospect, both films look like necessary links to Gosling’s most acclaimed performance. In “Half Nelson,” he plays a teacher who inspires his kids but also fails them. It’s not in his nature to be anything else, and it’s Gosling’s grasp of this contradiction that makes the film so powerful.