From the start of Half-Nelson, Ryan Gosling as Dan Dunne exudes the type of purposeful energy that characterizes all great leaders. His eyes are able to connect to each student as he lecture his class. Moreover, his usually reticent middle school schools respond with contained enthusiasm when he asks then to think deeply about the causes and after-effects of the civil rights movement. Here is a man that is going to change the world, one poor, African-American child at a time.

Unfortunately, the savior of American public education has a problem — he’s a crack head and he’s stuck in a long, meandering movie where he can never fully express his intentions.

In Half-Nelson, director Ryan Fleck sets up a great premise. What if one of the few teachers making a difference in an inner city school can’t help himself? What if his savior is one of his students — a mouthy, intelligent 13-year old who appears to be headed down the wrong path herself?

Although these are very interesting questions, they never get resolved. Instead, we get a few brilliant scenes interspersed with two hours of blurry cinematography. Fleck and his co-writer Anna Boden have created characters that are never fully able to express themselves because of Half-Nelson’s lacking script.

Yet, despite these weaknesses, Gosling and his co-stars are able to make something magical out of a bad situation. Gosling and Shareeka Epps in particular each deliver performances that should be remembered come Oscar time.

Gosling shines as a man coming to terms with his own inadequacy. It is almost as if he is two people at once – an idealistic teacher and a disturbed addict. When one character possesses him, the other is right below the surface, pushing for equal air time. Yet, each movement, squint, and bead of sweat feels authentic.

In contrast, Epps as Drey, the 13-year-old student who befriends Dunne, exudes calm. She seems to know that she is in a bad situation — her brother is in prison and her mother works around the clock as an EMT. Yet, while Gosling’s character appears to have lost his battle for self-control, Drey is on the path to winning hers. She is able to convey subtle emotion at just the right time with the flick of an eyelash. However, she is not just a pre-naturally old adult. When she deviates from her stoic gaze and smiles or laughs, the character still feels authentic. There are a lot of school movies with stoic, noble black students as characters — Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, Music of the Heart, etc. Yet, what makes Epps’ performance so special is that she is able to take the stock movie role and make the character feel like a real person and not a Hollywood stock role.

Although Gosling and Epps face an uphill battle garnering nominations due to the small distribution of their film, if nominated, they both have an excellent chance of winning. Gosling is the second legitimate best actor candidate this season behind Forest Whitaker. Epps is the only true supporting actress contender so far this season. They both deserve to be on the red carpet February 25th.