Detachment is a movie about teachers and about weltschmertz. Specifically, it is a movie about temp teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), and his experience as a 30-days substitute teacher at at high school in a particularly troubled and crime-ridden area; a school where the pupils have some of the lowest grade averages in the country, and the staff is always battling budget cuts and lay-offs. It is a deeply depressing place for the teachers, whose days are filled with managing the unruly pupils rather than teaching them. Barthes is an intelligent guy who is a much better teacher than the regulars; he manages, by fits and starts and with many setbacks, to reach the pupils and teach some of them to think for themselves. But just when they’ve started realizing how good he is and started bonding with him, he has to move on.
The movie goes into Barthes’ life in quite some detail during this month. We see that his smart and rational façade sometimes cracks as he has to deal with a sickly and semi-senile father in a nursing home, and how so many of the solutions to the social and learning-related problems of his pupils demand radical human solutions that Barthes understands but is not in a position to bring about. The main subplot concerns a teenage prostitute (excellently played by newcomer Sami Gayle) that Barthes saves from the street, and lets live in his apartment. Interspersed with the uncompromisingly realistic drama are interview-like scenes where Barthes talks about the issues the movie explores, which adds intensity by underscoring the heartfelt approach that the movie has to its topic.
It is a highly insightful and poignant movie which clearly shows the desperation that the teachers go through in their attempt to “leave no child behind” (a government policy that the movie basically describes as a joke) and deal with idiotic parents. Some teachers can’t take the strain and break down, while others are strong enough to remain relatively detached and meet the pupils with a cynicism that matches their own. James Caan is particularly good as an elderly teacher who is strong enough to do this, even as the hopelessness of it is not lost on him.
The movie features a lot of great actors, but mostly in tiny bit parts. One wonders why Bryan Cranston has such a tiny part, but I suppose the script must have attracted a lot of cool names. The only negative thing I will say about the movie is that it almost becomes too bleak and depressing. It seems to say, implicitly, that the poor conditions at this school are pretty much the same for all other schools, which is not the case – but, I grant that it may indeed be the case for so many schools in relatively poor areas that our attitude of wanting to improve conditions for those schools should be largely the same as our attitudes to school system in general. Generation after generation of young people are being dropped on the floor of ignorance and social inertia by the way public education treats them, and this is an issue that deserves a lot of serious and expert attention.
Of course, I have to mention the powerhouse acting performance of Adrien Brody in this movie. It is absolutely amazing; definitely the best work of his I have seen yet. This guy is no fluke.
I have to recommend this movie to anyone who has, or wants, an opinion about how our governments treat school kids. I am not American, and many of the problems chronicled here may not apply to my national school system, but many other problems are exactly the same, and some are just different but just as crucially in need of reform.
Detachment came out on DVD in the UK on January 28, and on Blu-ray on February 4. This review is based on a DVD-R screener.
Director: Tony Kaye
Cast: Adrien Brody, Sami Gayle, James Caan, Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks, Tim Blake Nelson, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Bryan Cranston and others
Runtime: 97 min.