If you personally know a schoolteacher, please make sure you give them a long hug after watchingDetachment. If you yourself are a schoolteacher, know that somewhere I am hugging a make-believe you right now.
Detachment primarily follows high-school substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), an entity that passes from school to school imparting his worldly knowledge on to those who surround him via his casually indifferent approach to life. As he begins his stay at his latest non-descript school he finds himself facing damaged staff, troubled students and brown-mouthed prostitutes, all of whom affect him as much as he inactively affects them.
A feel-good film Detachment is not. It is a relentlessly miserable drama that makes the teachers featured in Channel 4’s disheartening documentary Educating Essex look like the happiest, most fulfilled people on earth. Is Detachment actually worth the watch then? Whilst it has setbacks, the answer to that question is a definite yes.
Much of the film is shot in an obtrusive documentary style. Often, this enhances scenes set in and around the school, augmenting the visual grottiness of the building and the people that inhabit it; also at times heightening the impulsive drama that unfolds. At other times, however, the camera’s placement is amateur and distracting; sometimes angled so awkwardly it looks more like the camera is accidentally pressing up against an actor or a wall, looking more film-student than coming off as cinematography from a man who knows what he is doing. The film is also sporadically intercut with numerous talking heads which further confuses the audience as they attempt to figure out whether the film is actually claiming to be a mockumentary or not.
Technicalities aside, Adrien Brody puts in a grand performance, enveloping his detached character without fault. Brody’s talents almost gives us the feeling that we are watching an unintentional sequel toThe Truman Show throughout the film’s first half-hour which seems to feature only terrible actors; contrasting Brody’s unreserved portrayal of Henry and his distresses from the film’s start to end. Henry’s apathy and relatability is outstanding and Brody’s subtle play throughout closely rivals his Academy Award winning performance in The Pianist.
Once the film’s plot actually kicks in Detachment then unleashes a whole ensemble of stars making the effort to fill their annual ‘Acting In A Deep, Heavily Themed Independent Film’ quota. First Henry meets Sami Gayle’s prostitute, Erica who traverses the line from filthy street whore to Overly Attached Girlfriend in a ridiculously short amount of time, but Gayle’s wounded portrayal accomplishes this with ease and deserved likability.
Then there is James Caan’s Mr Seaboldt who has nothing much to do with Brody’s character, but his ability to bring humour to an otherwise depressing film through his box of clothes for under-dressed schoolkids and his operatic swearfests at verbally violent students is wholly satisfying. Christina Hendricks’s lost, lonely teacher serves as a potential (but rarely seen) love interest for Henry, and Tim Blake Nelson’s lifeless Mr Wiatt will make you both chuckle and reach for the tissues.
Detached employs many contrasting styles that change at consistently different speeds which is likely the point that director Tony Kaye is making about the world his characters live in but is awfully annoying at the same time as you never have the opportunity to relax, stopping you from simply trying to watch the film’s many sad tales unfold. Its ceaseless messages are neither light nor subtle but they are effective and will leave you thinking about the film’s characters and wondering if they have counterparts in the real world for the rest of your evening.
Although it keeps you actively engaged for the most part it is hard to believe that Detached comes from the same man that brought us American History X. Its themes are not as artistically portrayed or presented to us in an overly entertaining manner but Adrien Brody et al are enough to make the film a worthy recommendation – if you know how to get hold of some Prozac that is.
Written by Stephen J Bowron