Dan (the deservedly Oscar-nominated Ryan Gosling) is a history teacher in an inner-city Brooklyn school. He’s also a drug addict. It’s this division of personality that drives — if ‘drives’ is, indeed, the right word for such a thoughtful, slow-paced character piece — Ryan Fleck’s and Anna Boden’s thought-provoking and haunting film. The parallels between these two conflicting interests — Dan clearly desperately needs both in his life — and his attempts to teach his class about opposing forces and dialectics is a little heavy-handed but easy to forgive. The lingering memory is not the slightly tortured connection anyway: it’s the quality of Gosling’s performance and his relationship with Shareeka Epps.
Epps plays Drey, one of Dan’s students, who discovers his secret when she finds him smoking crack in the locker room. Instead of squealing, Drey demonstrates a worldliness beyond her years and keeps his secret, apparently understanding his frustrations with life and need for the crutch the drugs provide. As their relationship develops — and the inevitable hint of sexuality is sensitively handled and put aside — more of Drey’s life is revealed, which explains her understanding of the situation, and also why she perhaps needs a friend as much as Dan does.
It’s a strange tale that, while classically ‘odd couple’, takes some subtle unexpected turns and, refreshingly, given the setting, keeps the moralising to a minimum. It’s not a fun experience, but it’s not without humour. It’s also, for all the extremes of the situation, a very human tale. However, it would fall apart — and depressingly so — if it wasn’t for the central performances. Gosling’s promise has always been obvious, but this is a startling coming-of-age for the actor. That Epps, at 13, matches him step for step is remarkable. A minor masterpiece? That’s possibly an exaggeration, as there is a ‘film studenty’ earnestness that’s hard to shake, but it’s pretty damn close.