Over the past ten years, a plethora of movies have been made about American schoolteachers. Some of our on-screen educators have been good (Hilary Swank inspiring at-risk students in Freedom Writers), some bad (Cameron Diaz sleeping off hangovers during class in Bad Teacher) and some downright ugly (Ryan Gosling smoking crack between his in Half Nelson). But what we haven’t had much of in the past decade is a large cinematic output from Tony Kaye, the acclaimed filmmaker behind 1998’s American History X. This year, however, Kaye made a bold return to narrative filmmaking with Detachment, the story of a high school teacher who’s mostly good, sometimes bad and only occasionally ugly. Like American History X, Detachment features a strong central performance, and tells a powerful, if somewhat bleak tale of one generation striving to lead another toward grace and dignity. My review of the DVD after the jump.
Academy Award winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist, King Kong) stars in the film as Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher who manages to avoid any real connection with his students or fellow teachers by never staying too long at any one school. We are given hints through the occasional flashback of a troubled relationship with his mother that may have caused this propensity to detachment, but the film mostly focuses on Henry’s present tense dealings with the apathetic students and burned-out staff at his latest assignment. Meanwhile, outside of school, Henry meets a teenage prostitute, played by Sami Gayle of TV’s “Blue Bloods,” who challenges Henry’s refusal to let anyone get too close.
The film is strongest when it sticks to Henry’s storyline – specifically, the push-pull tension resulting from his need for intimacy and aversion to it – but it sometimes veers into a series of underdeveloped subplots featuring the school’s other staff members, played by everyone from Lucy Liu to Marcia Gay Harden to James Caan. While these characters are somewhat interesting and the actors all fine, none of them are given much to do, so the film ends up feeling a bit over-cast. The additional presence of TV mainstays Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”), William Peterson (“C.S.I.”) and Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) makes Detachment sometimes feel like a pilot for one of the bleakest, if most poetic, TV shows about high school ever made.
I say “poetic” because Henry’s character often describes his experiences of the school environment through lyrical voiceover, while the film, itself, often drifts into artistic, animated interludes and montages. In many ways, Detachment has more in common with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver than it does other “teacher” movies. Both are stories of lost and damaged protagonists struggling to make sense of a vicious and loveless world while seeking redemption though the protection of a young female prostitute. While this film doesn’t quite achieve Taxi Driver’s sense of visual poetry (Detachment’s look is a little too digital-cheap for my taste), it is certainly its spiritual cousin. Like Taxi Driver, Detachment also resolves its story with a disturbing act of violence, although here it’s a bit more heartbreaking because its victim is truly an innocent.
Where Detachment also supersedes Driver, and, for that matter, most movies about teachers, is in its lofty literary allusions. The film’s script, by Carl Lund, opens with a quote from Albert Camus, while its protagonist makes frequent references to the works of everyone from Orwell to Poe. It’s a far more intellectually ambitious approach than the one Michelle Pfeifer took in Dangerous Minds, where she dusted off the hippy-dippy lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” to teach her students about metaphor. If the students in Detachment don’t necessarily appreciate the significance of Orwell or Poe, the film certainly encourages its viewer to.
That’s a lot more than most movies about teachers ask of their audiences. In fact, most “teacher” movies only ask viewers to engage in one simple subject: rooting for a teacher to turn a classroom of losers into winners. Detachment engages its viewers on any number of given subjects, from the problem of isolation to what constitutes appropriate intimacy between a student and teacher to the flaws of 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act. In my opinion, this plurality of ideas and themes advances Detachment to the head of the “teacher movie” class.
The DVD includes a sit-down interview with director Tony Kaye and Adrien Brody and separate red carpet interviews with both from the film’s 2012 Tribeca Film Festival premiere. Standout moment for me was Adrien Brody championing independent cinema as the place his career began. It’s also the place where unique stories like this can still be told.
Picture is presented in 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. Audio options include Dolby Digital stereo and 5.1 surround. I had no issues with either, although I’m not crazy about the film’s look, which is a bit washed-out.
Detachment is a bold and well-acted film about a schoolteacher that, like its protagonist, has more on its mind than the usual “save the students” storyline.
Detachment was released Unrated and has a run time of approximately 97 minutes.