There is a scene in director Tony Kaye's new drama, Detachment, that beautifully sums up the entire mood of the film. It's Parent's Night at a high school and nary a parent in sight, the teachers (bogged down by their own exhaustive trials to educate reluctant students) appear so distant from one another even though some are within arm's reach of each other, and all we see are the school's dark, hollow halls.
Sure, it's bleak. And it's not what you would call an upper. But Detachment is one of the most realistic dramas we've seen that surrounds a classroom. We've watched Michelle Pfeiffer try to calm an unruly group of students in Dangerous Minds, and even Jon Lovitz attempted to blend in with the largely minority crowd of disorderly scholars in High School High. It usually seemed more about controlling students, rather than listening to their stories, and really plugging in to the real problem at hand.
In Detachment, Adrien Brody stars as Henry, a rather solemn substitute teacher with a one month assignment to teach at a new high school. As soon as he steps foot in the classroom, he's instantly met with snickers and eye rolls from the thoroughly jaded students who easily dismiss him. But Henry, seemingly unaffected, continues with his rather engaging lecture. That is, until one of the students steps up to him and threatens him if he doesn't give him a pencil and paper to participate in said lecture. It's Brody's next move that captures the essence of Henry: he simply hands him a piece of paper and something to write with, then continues with his lecture. He's quiet about it, which discourages the impetuous student from further approach, and the student returns to his desk.
The film is often told in snap vignettes during which a scene is interrupted by a plaguing flashback that shows the reality of what the person is being affected by. For Henry, it's a childhood tragedy he keeps reliving in his present life. For Principal Carol Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden), it's reaching the end of a tumultuous career. For Dr. Doris Parker (Lucy Liu), a guidance counselor, it's having to reason with headstrong students who couldn't care less about her reasoning, while secretly wanting to knock them upside the head with a math book.
Naturally, these troubles weigh heavily on the characters. And it doesn't just end in the classroom. The characters take this with them outside of school and, in doing so, wallow in their own inability to connect with others, after trying--in vain--to do so for far too long.
While Charles Seaboldt (James Caan) relies on pills to disassociate himself from the nightmare of selfless teaching, Henry's rather unorthodox teaching style subdues his students and draws them closer to him. This includes one particular student, Meredith (Betty Kaye, Tony's daughter), a tortured artist, and even young Erica (Sami Gayle), a seemingly hopeless street walker. Ironically, it is the unaffected that attracts and gets through to the disaffected.
A gripping drama, Detachment offers a gut-wrenching look at the school system, as told by the unsung heroes--the teachers. Although it will gut you in certain scenes, it will also wake you up--if you're not already--to the reality of the classroom. A dynamite cast, which includes Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Blythe Danner and Tim Blake Nelson, yields startlingly good performances and star-making turns from Kaye and Gayle. Tony Kaye, the man behind the critically acclaimed American History X, delivers another fearless film that never stutters in its attempt towards greatness.
Detachment is playing in select theaters in New York City, and is available on VOD.