After bursting on the indie film scene in 1998 with American History X, director Tony Kaye has worked sporadically, to say the least. His next film would arrive more than 10 years later and was even better received, though very different in form. Released in 2006, some declared the two-and-a-half-hour documentary Lake of Fire the definitive film on the abortion debate. The man has a mind for social consciousness and it continues to show in his ambitious return to feature film making: Detachment. With an expansive cast that includes James Caan, Blythe Danner, Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu and starring Adrien Brody— all giving powerful performances— it seems such a shame the director does not explore them more than superficially.
The film explores an array of perspectives— too many perspectives, slipping into ungainly narrative overkill. It opens with a confusing setup from the get go: black and white footage of talking heads who talk about how they stumbled into teaching at public schools and grown to love it. Brody’s character joins the monologues, but his image is in color. He talks about educators with his own admiration. It almost comes across as a documentary on school teachers. But, no, this is a film about a substitute teacher named Henry Barthes (Brody) with a load of baggage, which appears in flashbacks on what looks to be 8 mm home movie footage, intercut a few seconds at a time into the film’s action. These flashbacks follow him at school, at home caring for a teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle) he took in from off the street and while he tends to his ailing grandfather (Louis Zorich) at a nursing home.
As the film plays out, Henry’s memory will be revealed. Though it offers a doozy of a dark trauma, it illuminates the character too late for the sake of the action that plays out during the majority of this meandering movie.
That action unfolds in quick snippets with shaky, handheld camera that sometimes slips out of focus trying to keep up with it all. It’s an artistic embellishment but also highlights the film’s issues. The narrative moves around so much it allows little room for believable, dynamic interaction between the characters, much less honest character development. As the educators act out in extreme ways: crying, yelling, popping pills, throwing desks, curling up on the floor in the fetal position to make announcements over the school’s PA, none of these people seem to genuinely connect.
The gulf between teachers and students is even more ungainly, as it should be in the dramatic frame of the school-based drama. However, when the connections do occur they seem contrived and clichéd. Barthes arrives at a failing school to sub in an English class for a month. He immediately sacrifices a child who talks back to the hallway as an example. Next, a foul-mouthed black kid in a do-rag gets up in his face demanding a sheet of paper and pen. Henry stands his ground and gives the kid what he wants, along with a little speech about understanding his anger. He also shows a gentle touch to Meredith (Betty Kaye), a chubby girl sitting in the back of the class. It is soon revealed she has an artistic talent that portends a troubled psyche, but no one seems to pay attention to it. Her father tells her she is wasting her time and Henry calls her talented. But the connections do not go deeper than superficially.
Henry is only in the classroom a few times in the movie. Reading from George Orwell’s 1984, he lectures his students on doublethink and ubiquitous assimilation, a great term for the hypocrisy of popular culture nowadays. The lecture offers a revealing moment, illuminating not only the character’s frustration with getting through to kids today but also probably the director’s well-intended motivations behind the film. However, one cannot throw in a dramatic speech in the middle of a film about dysfunction and put a bow on it. It is too easy to make this moment alone the connecting bond with the students and teacher. The film needs more than an array of hysterical, revolving door characters and one tidy moment of connection that seems to contradict the problems at the heart of film. While offering a grim look at the generational divide of today’s youth and the teachers trying to reach them through out-dated curriculum, the connection between Henry and his students seems a clichéd moment. Reading from a book long part of the high school curriculum is too easy and hypocritical a solution.
Brody gives a focused and powerful performance, as do many of his co-stars, but the camera should have stayed more focused on him and his need to come to terms with a traumatic past. Everyone has issues in Detachment, but a few minutes of the intimate, extreme problems of the other characters who never seem to connect with the main character only feels superfluous. Detachment might have been a better film with a longer runtime, allowing for more character development for the main characters. In the end, the film just feels like a lumpy, melodramatic mess that leaves the viewer feeling too little for too much.
Detachment is not rated and runs 97 min. It is currently playing in limited engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. Detachment is also playing in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema and at the Tower Theater. It is also available on demand and at select theaters across the US.