Absent parents and dispassionate youth make
Absent parents and dispassionate youth make for
tragedy, suicide and a disastrous school system in Tony Kaye’s typically
piercing new movie, Detachment, about an ailing school and Adrien Brody’s
internally tortured substitute teacher.
Cast your mind back to
arguably Kaye’s most famous film, American
History X, and you’ll know that’s he’s a director who tackles controversial
issues head on and can do so with a clearness of mind and purpose. Like
American History X, Detachment features a strong central performance from its
lead actor Adrien Brody and a clear central message but has the tendency to
lose itself in excessive histrionics.
Brody gives an
impassioned performance as Henry Barthes, a supply teacher at an inner city
school whose bosses care more about driving up house prices then helping
pupils. Despite his outwardly indifferent attitude and attempts at inner
emotional detachment, he can’t help but care about the struggling and
emotionally neglected pupils he encounters. This is, no doubt, because of
Henry’s own chequered childhood which we see through a series of over-stylised
flashbacks featuring suicide and suggestions of abuse.
Henry is alone and
tormented. He chooses to move from school to school in order to stay detached
from his subjects, life and relationships. Beside his verging on senile
grandfather, the only other seemingly meaningful relationship he has is with a
Lolita-esque child prostitute called Erica (Sami Gayle), who he first encounters giving oral sex to an old man
on a bus. She worms her way into his conscience, home and then heart. Their
relationship is touching and reminiscent of Léon and Mathilda in Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional. He affects the life of another pupil, a
lonely and overweight girl – Kaye’s daughter Betty – who can only express
herself through art, but is misunderstood by her father, but despite his well
meaning efforts he seems to hurt her more than help her.
Kaye adopts several
stylistic techniques throughout Detachment, mostly, but not always, to the film’s
advantage. He punctuates the linear narrative with chalkboard drawings and
documentary-style interviews with teachers about their daily life which
includes, if you believe Kaye’s take on school life, being lambasted on a daily
basis by ignorant parents and equally ignorant kids. Too many techniques take
away from the character’s stories and Kaye would have been better sticking to
the simplistic style of American History X.
At its heart Detachment
is about a so-called infectious malady that is engulfing the young, brought on
by the failure of adults, teachers, parents and government to protect, nurture
and engage them, in order to turn them into reasonable, motivated and
respectful individuals. Instead, debauchery, self-loathing and glibness reign
supreme in our schools and streets. Is it really as bad as all that? No, is
probably the right answer, but Kaye’s film, like others recently, puts forward
a strong argument for not neglecting youth – or on society’s head be it.
Affecting subject matter
and an intense performance from Brody, not to mention a strong supporting cast
– including rising star Sami Gayle, Christina
Hendricks and Lucy Liu – make
Detachment at times a powerful watch, especially if you remember the
melodramatic angst of your own youth. It’s good to remember that there may
sometimes appear to be only despair, but as you often soon discover, there’s
always some form of hope just around the corner, even in Detachment.