With his feature film debut American History X, director Tony Kaye displayed a penchant for projects which directly tackle the prominent social issues of pre and post-Millennial America, proving that he could dissect these issues in a humanistic and challenging way that defies the typical Oscar-bait approach more commonly seen in US movies bearing an overt social consciousness. His latest film Detachment displays the same stylistic hallmarks seen in the previous film, and again boasts the raw naturalism in its screenplay and performances that makes for such riveting and powerful drama.
The film is framed by an enigmatic soliloquy from protagonist Henry Barthes (Brody), a substitute teacher whose life drifting from one short-term assignment to the next simultaneously allows him to remain emotionally detached from his students and keep from facing his personal demons. He is a lonely man trapped in a painful and vacuous world: there are no personal mementos in his sparse apartment, his sole living relative is a grandfather confined to assisted-living and whose debilitating mental illness is eradicating the dark memories of familial abuse in his past. Over the course of a month-long stint at a school populated by troubled students and struggling to meet the requirements of the Board of Education, Barthes forms relationships with three people who all hold the potential to end his cycle of detachment: the similarly lonely fellow teacher Sarah (Hendricks), artistically gifted but emotionally unstable student Meredith (Kaye, the director’s real-life daughter), and damaged teenage prostitute Erica (Gayle), whom Barthes is compelled to take into his home.
If the above synopsis makes the film sound like a hackneyed TV Movie, bearing typical clichés of an inspirational but transitory teacher and a young hooker whose relationship blossoms to provide mutual redemption, then it is a tribute to the filmmakers that the piece oozes authenticity and freshness out of its every pore, never seeming in any way contrived or predictable. The screenplay by Carl Lund sublimely controls an ensemble of eclectic and truthful characters, which in the hands of a cast clearly operating under an assured director become endearingly three-dimensional avatars for inherently recognizable classroom figures.
Adrien Brody hasn’t always chosen his roles and projects with care since his major awards coup in Polanski’s The Pianist, but in Detachment his portrayal of a passionate but haunted man, who craves connection yet struggles to overcome his paternal and educative social role, is as warm, multi-faceted and moving a performance as he’s ever given. The supporting cast are also impressive, with Sami Gayle’s Erica and Betty Kaye’s Meredith providing a genuinely heartbreaking emotional core for the piece, but the truly revelatory performances come from the fleeting appearances of the school’s regular teachers. As a headmistress facing forced retirement, Marcia Gay Harden wonderfully balances belligerence with sorrow; Lucy Liu is excellent as the caustic, overwrought careers counselor; Tim Blake Nelson effortlessly catches the drudgery and despair of the educator who has lost all belief in the value of what he teaches; and James Caan is hilarious as the charismatic veteran whose humour counteracts the despair of his vocation.
If there is a problem with the film, it’s that Tony Kaye’s direction doesn’t always hit the mark. For the most part his simplicity and pace, elucidated by the editing, perfectly complements the drama, but his forays into animation and quasi-documentary sequences, including the aforementioned framing device, come across as needlessly ostentatious. If he had set out to make a film about the flaws in the education system one could criticize him of missing the mark, since we barely spend any time in the classroom with Barthes outside of the customary sequences of his effective disciplinary tactics earning the respect of problem pupils, and of a moment of teaching truly resonating with his class: in this case, an apt metaphor comparing the beatific educational system to the House of Usher.
However, the film’s true focus seems to be less on the flaws of contemporary schooling and more upon the generational trauma caused by a lack of compassionate parenting. The school’s parent’s evening is symbolically deserted, and Barthes’ true pain comes from his youthful orphanage and the shared parenting failure between himself and his grandfather. His most important relationship is with Erica, a girl who is divorced from the classroom dynamic, as it is she who precipitates his salvation. Only when parents take an active and compassionate interest in their children’s upbringing can the problems facing educators be effectively addressed.
A film of memorable performances and sharp style, this is a moving and compelling work that evades cliché and breathes fresh air into the schoolroom-set drama.
Review by Adam Hollingworth