Gosling isn't going to win Best Actor, but the fact that he was nominated underscores why the Oscars matter: They call attention to acting artistry that would otherwise be overlooked. Consider, for example, the wide-eyed look of fear and shame on Gosling's face when Epps discovers her teacher slumped in a toilet stall in the girls' locker room, disoriented on crack and overwhelmed with self-loathing. Or the way he wipes his mouth self-protectively on anything that's available: a shirt collar, even his neckties. Or his shifty, blinking eyes during a one-night stand: He's all cleaned up now, he says, right before snorting another line of coke. "For the most part," he admits, "I do it now to get by, but I can handle it." He knows that he's deceiving himself and does it anyway.
Gosling carries this movie -- a task made all the more difficult by director Ryan Fleck's decision to shoot in claustrophobic close-up nearly throughout. Details are telling: the belt stapled like a shoulder strap to his teacher's briefcase, the concealing aviator glasses, the star-spangled bandage Gosling sports on his lower lip after a woman punches him for getting pushy about having sex.
Extras are skimpy and lack the 16-minute short starring Epps that started this project. The audio commentary, by writers Fleck and Anna Boden (who also edited and helped produce), is mostly chatty and aimless, though they're informative about what was improvised on-set and how often scripted dialogue was cut to increase scenes' visual impact. And while Boden and Fleck are way too obsessed about their soundtrack, they're still amusing about the things new filmmakers learn when working with a budget for the first time. So what if they only grossed $2.7 mill? Half Nelson should perform well on DVD.