out of Five
Running time: 97
Stylishly directed and sharply written, this is an engaging, if ultimately depressing drama with strong performances from a superb ensemble cast.
What's it all about?
Directed by Tony Kaye (American History X), Detachment is written by ex-teacher Carl Lund and stars Adrien Brody as Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher who takes a month long job at a tough city school run by hard-bitten principal Carol Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden). Henry makes an immediate impact on his teenaged students by quickly dealing with two class bullies, while offering tentative support to sensitive, lonely pupil Meredith (played by Kaye's daughter, Betty Kaye) and striking up a promising friendship with fellow teacher Sarah Madison (Christina Hendricks).
Meanwhile, Henry's out-of-school life is equally chaotic, whether it's paying frequent visits to his Alzheimer's-afflicted grandfather (Louis Zorich) or taking in a young teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle as Erica) he finds on the street. At the same time, each of the other teachers (including James Caan, Lucy Liu and Tim Blake Nelson) also face their share of problems both at home and at work.
Adrien Brody is excellent as Henry, who's seemingly able to use his own detachment to great advantage, particularly in the face of aggressive, bullying behaviour from students; this also pays off brilliantly later in the film when we see his built-up anger erupt elsewhere, to chilling effect. There's also strong work from Sami Gayle, who's sweet and vulnerable as Erica and generates strong chemistry with Brody, while Hendricks, Liu, Caan, Harden and Betty Kaye all deliver superb supporting turns, some of which (Caan and Liu) are darkly funny.
Kaye directs with an impressive sense of style throughout, intercutting the action with delightful and occasionally surreal chalkboard animations, hazy home-movie-style flashback sequences, interviews with real teachers and interviews with an older (or at least bearded) version of Brody's character in the same vein. Similarly, the script is powerful and uncompromising, pulling the story away from its Inspirational Teacher Movie trappings and aiming for something that's simultaneously starkly pessimistic (or realistic, depending on your point of view) and, in places, absurdly exaggerated.
The main problem with the film is that some of the elements don't quite work – for example, you question the authenticity of the real-life teachers because they're deprived of context. Similarly, the script occasionally becomes too heavy handed to detrimental effect, although there are one or two great pay-offs, such as the oh-so-symbolic parents evening where none of the parents bother to show up.
Impressively directed and superbly acted, Detachment is an engaging, well written drama that makes some powerful points about the current US education system, though it's also something of a depressing watch. Worth seeing.