Fourteen years after a dissatisfied Tony Kaye tried to take his name off of 1998's "American History X" over final cut disagreements, the strong-minded auteur and documentarian has returned to fiction with a motion picture so raw that it rarely feels like it. With the film's handprints wholly his own this time, "Detachment" declaratively sounds like a school bell unleashing a battle cry. A character study of teachers yearning to make a difference and teenage students floundering without proper guidance, Kaye and screenwriter Carl Lund cast a critical, blistering eye toward modern day's supremely flawed public education system. They don't like what they see one bit, and why would they? Particularly within lower-class communities but rampant just about anywhere, kids are overcome with heightened pressures and/or a surrendering disaffection for themselves and their futures. Parents too often miss the picture, or simply choose to overlook their children's problems because it's easier for them that way. Instructors do what they can, but have little leeway beyond the curriculum set up before them. When one of them snaps, it's seen as a personal weakness and perhaps even grounds for termination. Such is the case with guidance counselor Dr. Parker (Lucy Liu), who sees student after student walk through her office door each day with a bad attitude and an overwhelming sense of apathy for the disastrous lives they are currently setting themselves up for. In such a moment where she can no longer hold her tongue, Dr. Parker screams at a girl, pleading with her to care and giving her a crushing blow-by-blow account of what her sucky future will hold if she continues to throw away her potential. Later on, Parker weeps to her colleague about what she did. She knows she crossed the line, but she also knows there are few other ways she might be able to get through to her pupils. In reality, it could be the shock to the system these troubled kids need, but will it change anything?
Aching vignettes build upon each other like a finely woven tapestry, all of them revolving around a Long Island high school in fundamental disrepair, spare papers and debris blowing around the lonesome hallways and crumpled classrooms as symbols of indifference. There's Principal Carol Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden), who has just learned she's being let go due to budget cuts, stripping her of an identity and leaving her with nothing except an insufferable husband (Bryan Cranston) to come home to. Mr. Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson) is ignored by his class day in and day out, ignored during lunch break as he stands outside grasping the fence in front of him, and ignored further by his family in the evenings. On Parents' Night, the other teachers, among them the hopeful Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks), the seasoned Ms. Perkins (Blythe Danner), and self-deprecating Mr. Seaboldt (James Caan), patiently wait for a crowd that never shows up. In fact, no one does.
And then there's substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), sent to temporarily take over a junior English class. Mistreated at the start, Henry turns the tables on them, treats them like equals, and hopes that along the way the students might learn a little something. His personal life isn't exactly rosy, either. His Grampa (Louis Zorich)his last surviving relativeis in the late stages of dementia, the old man's sickness only serving to bring to mind traumatic events from Henry's childhood that he desperately wants to let go of. At home, he takes in a homeless teenage prostitute, Erica (Sami Gayle), disgusted not only by her way of life, but the untold circumstances that must have led her to such a lowly present. Henry makes it clear to Erica that he is not her family, that their living arrangement isn't permanent by any means, but he's the only person who has ever paid attention to her. He may not be a saint, but he could be her savior.
Emotions run high and fervid in "Detachment," the film's drama playing out like an operatic tragedy. At times, the characters' anger and desperation threaten to boil over into over-the-top histrionics, but director Tony Kaye miraculously keeps the material on track at all times. Trusting in the bold talents of his ensemble cast, he has let them loose in ways we have never seen some of them perform. Marcia Gay Harden (2009's "Whip It
") is heartbreaking as Principal Dearden, her inner turmoil becoming so great that she begins to recite the morning announcements while curled up in a ball on her office floor. In only a handful of scenes, Lucy Liu (2007's "Code Name: The Cleaner
") brings such a gritty, mournful quality to Dr. Parker that one fully understands and sympathizes with her instantly. Christina Hendricks (2011's "Drive
") is positioned as Henry's would-be love interest, the still-naïve Ms. Madison, but their romance has barely begun before a misunderstanding on her part irrevocably ends whatever chances these two people might have had to get together. Hendricks affectingly plays a young teacher who still has a lot to learn herself, her frustrating accusatory tendencies keeping in line with school policy while completely missing the mark on being able to connect with the students.
It is Henry Barthes, however, who is the rightful centerpiece, the ghosts of his character's past and his relationships with two teenage girlsthe aforementioned Erica, as well as bullied student Meredith (Betty Kaye)the true-blue heart of the story. Brody's Henry is single, lives alone, and is preparing to say good-bye to the final remaining person linked to his bloodline. He's a sad cinematic figure, but also noble, and absolutely not to be pitied. Nevertheless, it's difficult not to be swept up in his hurt when he gets a firsthand glimpse at just how dire things are at his latest school. One boy ruthlessly kills a cat on the property, then carries it around like a badge of honor, no feelings of remorse or understanding that what he's done is absolutely cruel and wrong. When Dr. Parker suggests that such behavior may be a warning sign for bipolar disorder or worse, the viewer can only slink down in dread that his parents will likely just sweep this incident under the rug until it's too late to do something about it. In class, Meredith is drawn to her substitute teacher. Sensitive, artistic, and a little overweight, Meredith is bombarded each day with put-downs and, in one harsh glance into her home life, berated by her father. It's no wonder she feels worthless, "It Gets Better" be damned, and only in Henry does she see someone whom she might be able to turn to. When reality doesn't come close to matching the pleas for help in her mind, Meredith is left even more broken than before. Only in hindsight must Henry question himself over whether or not he could have done more to help her. In the case of Erica, at least, he is confident he's done the right thing when the time comes to call child welfare services. By helping to put her on a different path, he can only hope that she takes advantage of the newfound chances she's been afforded, regardless of her impending HIV results.
Newcomer Betty Kaye is an extraordinary find as Meredith, one that Tony Kaye didn't have to journey far to find: she's his daughter. This key familial relation makes no difference once she's seen on the screen, her character's emotional wounds spilling out as if they were strictly the actress' own. As Erica, Sami Gayle is every bit as impressive. Erica, whom Henry first sees performing a sex act on a much older man on the city bus, talks a tough game, but she's not nearly as wise as the act she puts on when she later tries to pick Henry up. One look at her and he sees she's obviously underage. Erica's growing bond with Henry and her resulting transformation, physical and internal, as she gets a peek into the kind of life she's never had before is unforced and rather beautiful. Above all of its other stirring performances, the muscular direction, and the fearless vision of its screenplay, Adrien Brody (2011's "Wrecked
") stands as the film's triumphant piece de resistance
. An expressive actor whose face really is the window to his characters' souls, Brody's work is at once poignantly layered, vulnerable and undaunted, implosive and explosive, a constant struggle that reaches a cathartic arc by the end. He's riveting to watch, all right, but such an accolade seems too quaint for the breadth of his talent.
"Detachment" is as bleak as a debilitating winter storm, one that arrives without any way to stop it and cuts off the bulk of communication. Eventually, though, light will
peek through the clouds. It is on the precipice of this happening where Tony Kaye concludes what equally earns the labels of bleeding human drama and pointed diatribe against ill-advised public schools, absent parents, and the vast divide that separates both of them from the children neither understands. Big and bold despite limited resources, the film dares not offer easy answers or solutions, only acknowledging that something drastic must be doneand fastif our next generation is to have the hope they deserve. Let's make things clear; "Detachment" is not another inspirational feel-good tale about a teacher and their students like "Stand and Deliver," "Dangerous Minds," or "Freedom Writers
." It's disturbing, it's uncompromising, it's understandably urgent, and it's absolutely crucial.