Disconnect is something rather brilliant. It’s not only a timely and disturbing exploration of everyday people navigating a world inundated with technology, it’s also a deep, resonant character study and, in its own right, an engaging story that builds suspense as well as any action picture, if not better. The title alone evokes a number of interpretations; in one fell swoop, the film examines the disconnect between parents and children, between husbands and wives, and between people in general, many of whom, myself included, willingly forgo face-to-face contact and rely on impersonal electronic communication. Text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, internet chat rooms, streaming video feeds – all this is now a way of life. But just as the title points to the problem, it also plainly spells out the solution. If we are in fact too technologically dependant, we could simply disconnect from it.
In spite of everything I just said, I don’t believe that the film is technophobic. I do, however, believe it’s a cautionary tale of the ways in which technology can be abused. It’s also a rather compelling look at human behavior, at how we define ourselves personally and professionally, at what it means to love someone, at how friendship has been redefined, and at how it’s possible to have something in common with the with unlikeliest of people. In the tradition of masterpieces like Paul Haggis’ Crash, it’s structured as separate story strands that weave and out of each other, each featuring characters that are slowly but surely being led to their respective destinies. In the process, repressed truths are brought to the surface. As to whether this brings about positive or negative changes is something I leave for you to discover.
The story strands are fully developed in and of themselves, which is to say that not a single character felt extraneous or one-dimensional. We meet a teenage boy named Jason (Colin Ford) who, along with his friend (Aviad Bernstein), beings cyberbullying one of his classmates, an introverted musician named Ben (Jonah Bobo), by posing as a teenage girl on a phony Facebook page. Jason, previously oblivious to the psychological side effects of bullying, wrestles with his guilt when his prank leads to an unfortunate turn of events. Ben’s father, a cell-phone dependant lawyer named Rich (Jason Bateman), cannot process his anger except by burying himself in solving the mystery of what went wrong. He too feels a tremendous sense of guilt, for, although he loved Ben, he didn’t understand him. He never really tried to.
We meet an ambitious news reporter named Nina (Andrea Riseborough), who has found a career-making story with Kyle (Max Thieriot), an underage stripper for an adult-only website. He’s but one of several underage performers, all troubled runaways who have been taken in, sheltered, and brainwashed by the owner of a child pornography ring. The more Nina and Kyle come into contact with each other, the more inappropriate their relationship gets. As is the case with all the intertwining subplots, this story isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem; there’s the question of exploitation and whether Nina is more guilty of it than the man who took Kyle in, despite the fact that he has conditioned Kyle into believing he’s not capable of doing anything else with his life. There’s a misplaced sense of loyalty, and it’s profoundly unsettling.
We meet Cindy and Derek Hull (Paula Patton and Alexander Skarsgård), who have drifted apart since the death of their infant son. Lacking the emotional support of her husband, Cindy copes by having internet chats with an anonymous person on a forum for grieving. Derek copes with electronic gambling, although we don’t know if he’s more in mourning over the loss of his son or his former life as a marine; ever since becoming an office worker, he feels like less than a man. Both their lives are turned upside down when it’s discovered that an identity thief has drained all their funds. When they get a lead, they go against legal advice and track down the suspected perp themselves. What unnerves me the most about this story is that, by plotting to take justice into their own hands, Cindy and Derek are relearning how to communicate.
The detective in charge of Cindy and Derek’s case is a widowed former police officer named Mike (Frank Grillo), who, as it so happens, is Jason’s father. Mike is tactful and accommodating when it comes to his clients, but he always plays Bad Cop with his own son and handles every conversation as if it were an interrogation. Presumably, this stems from sadness over the loss of his wife and resentment for having to care for Jason all by himself. In this sense, Jason and Ben have something in common. The surprising thing is that Jason actually does understand this, even while blatantly misleading Ben with his phony Facebook messages. Every character in Disconnect is so thoroughly fleshed out, so completely authentic, that at no point can we label any of them or take sides. The genius of this film is that, in the best and worst ways, it’s thoroughly human.
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