I had no idea how ill prepared I was to experience Detachment. Here is a film that plunges headfirst into the depths of disillusionment, despair, and failure and almost never resurfaces for air. You will experience emotions normally repressed during movie watching. You will be saddened, shocked, and above all, angered. You will see things you wouldn’t ever want to see and hear things that should never be heard. You will wade through a sea of bleakness, desperately searching for some small shred of hope to cling on to. At the end of it all, you will be so psychologically drained that, for a time, it may seem as if you will never be happy again. At the same time, you will also get to thinking, and that’s exactly why I’m recommending this movie so highly.
A few months ago, I snubbed my nose at the critically acclaimed thriller The Grey, an equally hopeless and depressing but also nihilistic story about men who must fight against wolves, and themselves, in the snowy Alaskan wilderness. Unlike that film, which reduced its compelling ideas into a cheap and shallow thriller, Detachment uses its desperation and despondency to make a point. I don’t see it as a movie so much as a wakeup call, a way for audiences to understand not just the world but themselves as well. At its essence, it’s an examination of behaviors that are perpetuated by people that have the power to stop it. It might not seem like they have the power. In fact, it might seem like absolutely everything is working against them. There’s no question that rising above adversity is a challenge. Nevertheless, it’s one that must be faced.
The main setting is an inner city public high school, one that exemplifies with horrifying detail the failure of the No Child Left Behind act of 2001. Most of the students are poorly educated, violent, and foulmouthed. They have no respect for others, but more to the point, they have no respect for themselves. They have, in fact, degenerated into pure apathy. This has rubbed off on the faculty, for they know that all their years of teaching and guidance haven’t made the slightest difference. They’re constantly berated by furious parents for being so lousy at their jobs. It’s almost as if they have relinquished themselves of the responsibility of actually raising their own children. Is your son or daughter a problem? Don’t take the necessary steps of working towards a solution – simply dump them off at school and let the teachers do the dirty work.
Bearing witness to all of this is a substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody). He struggles to make a difference, all the while knowing that he’s failing miserably. He sees nothing but people who have given up, and he’s within of inch of giving up on himself. His personal life is a mess; his grandfather (Louis Zorich), in the advances states of some kind of dementia, languishes in a nursing home staffed by people who simply don’t care. He has flashbacks of a childhood scarred by the absence of a father, an alcoholic mother, and a deep tragedy. He eventually takes in an underage prostitute named Erica (Sami Gayle). He’s saddened by her situation and even helps her in a few important regards, but he doesn’t coddle her like a frightened puppy. He wants to get through to her that she has value as a person, that she’s so much better than giving oral sex to men on the bus. He’s also tortured by the fact that their arrangement can’t last forever.
Several distinguished actors make appearances in this film, mostly as faculty members. These would include Marcia Gay Harden, Tim Blake Nelson, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Christina Hendricks, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., Bryan Cranston, and William Petersen. All are in various stages of professional and personal breakdown; Nelson plays a teacher who isn’t noticed by anyone, Caan plays an administrator who can only get through the day on medication and biting wit, and Harden plays a woman who knows that the end is near. In one of the best scenes, Liu lashes out at a student for her disrespect and indifference at her own future. She gets nothing but kids like this day in and day out. What is the point of pointing out their academic shortcomings when they obviously won’t take the steps to better themselves?
Of all the actors that appeared in the film, the most compelling is Betty Kaye as a student named Meredith, who observes the school through the lens of her camera. She creates dark collages with her photos. Her creativity is labeled by her unseen but clearly heard father as unnecessary teen angst. Believing only beautiful people are worthy of attention, he cruelly harps on her about her overeating, the way she dresses, and her social isolation. Meredith, an intelligent young woman, makes a connection with Barthes. Unfortunately, her self-esteem is so low that she misinterprets his encouragement as personal affection.
The film intercuts linear scenes with multiple narrative techniques, none more resonant than Barthes’ documentary-style confessionals. The final scene begins with him reading the opening sentences from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which should already tell you everything you need to know. The message of Detachment is simply one of responsibility and caring. If you’re a parent, nurture your children and allow them to be themselves. Don’t expect a school system to raise them for you – as they say, education begins at home. Before you point out someone else’s flaws, first recognize your own. Understand that you’re not perfect. Be thoughtful of others. And above all, know that you matter. There is no tragedy deeper than giving up on yourself.
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