Directed by: Tony Kaye.
Written by: Carl Lund.
Starring: Adrien Brody (Henry Barthes), Sami Gayle (Erica), Christina Hendricks (Ms. Madison), Betty Kaye (Meredith), Lucy Liu (Dr. Parker), James Caan (Mr. Seaboldt), Marcia Gay Harden (Principal Carol Dearden), Blythe Danner (Ms. Perkins), Louis Zorich (Grampa), Bryan Cranston (Richard Dearden), William Petersen (Sarge), Tim Blake Nelson (Mr. Wiatt), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Mr. Mathias).
Being a teacher in the best of circumstances is hard. Being a teacher in a school where most of the students don’t care, the parents care even less, and the State government is looking to close down your school unless you can raise your test scores is even harder. And after a while of teaching in schools like this, you may well end up like Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), who at one point cared and thought he could make a difference. We still see flashes of that man, but for the most part, Henry walks through his day like a ghost.
Henry is a substitute teacher called in to take over for a teacher who just cannot take coming to work one day longer. He lives in a cramped little apartment, in the bad part of town, and spends most of his money on his grandfather’s assisted living facility – but that sucks too, as the staff doesn’t really assist grandpa too much. When Henry walks into the classroom, it takes him a while to get everyone to settle down – he has to throw one student out almost immediately, and then is threatened by another one. For those thinking that perhaps Henry will turn this ragtag group of misfits around, you’re in for a surprise, because nothing of the sort happens. True, the students gradually do come to respect Henry, but he doesn’t really inspire them too much. They like him because he treats them with just slightly more respect than some of the other teachers. The only thing in Henry’s life that means anything is his relationship with Erica (Sami Gayle), a teenage prostitute. No, they never have sex – he treats her like a younger sister, gradually getting her to believe that she is worth something. But if this is a triumph, it is offset by his relationship with one of his students – Meredith (Betty Kaye), who thinks Henry is the one person who sees her for who she really is – the truth is, he barely notices her.
Directed by Tony Kaye, from a screenplay by Carl Lund, Detachment, is perhaps the darkest movie about teaching that I can recall. We have some interesting movies about teachers in the last few years – from Laurent Cantent’s brilliant The Class to the Canadian film Monsieur Lazhar, to the drug addicted teacher at the heart of Half Nelson. These movies show just how soul crushingly hard teaching can be, but also how rewarding it can be. There is nothing rewarding about teaching in Detachment. Henry is just trying to go through his day, and the teachers who are the most effective in the movie – like James Caan – are the ones who allow all the insults and apathy of their student’s role off their backs. Lucy Liu has a great scene as the guidance counsellor as he snaps at a female student, telling her she has no future, because she doesn’t give a shit, and the only thing she will ever succeed at is getting men to fuck her. That believing in something is hard and takes character – it takes nothing to give up. Harsh, perhaps a little clichéd, but true.
Tony Kaye made his debut film, American History X in 1998, and despite the fact that it has become a minor classic, his battle with the studio, and star Edward Norton, pretty much ruined his career. His documentary, Lake of Fire, is one of the finest of the last decade, and the best doc you will ever see on abortion. Now finally, he has made a follow-up feature, and he gets a great ensemble cast to participate. Most of them, like Marcia Gay Harden, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Tim Blake Nelson, Blythe Danner and the aforementioned Lucy Liu and James Caan, only have a couple of scenes. This really is Brody's movie, and he is great in the lead role. His Henry has, as the title suggests, grown detached from the world around him, and his job. He no longer really gives a shit about anything. Erica slowly draws him back into life, but is it too late?
Detachment is not a great film – it remains a little clichéd, a little too dark to really be believed. And yet, it held my attention throughout. Kaye knows how to direct and makes this a visually interesting film, centered on Adrien Brody’s face, a mask of indifference hiding something deeper and darker. Yes, the movie reaches a little too far at times, but I didn’t mind. I’m sure all teachers will see at least a little bit of themselves in this film.