Film Review: Detachment (2011)

The only other film that I, and most likely the majority of other people, are familiar with by director Tony Kaye is the intense racial drama starring Edward Norton as former neo-Nazi Derek Vinyard, American History X. Judging by Kaye’s past experience, he is comfortable with handling controversial, gritty material, and that is exactly what his latest film starring Adrien Brody is all about: realism.

Detachment is a serious and poetic film about the nature of today’s public education system told from the viewpoint of a substitute teacher named Henry Barthes (Brody). It is obvious from the start of the film that Henry, although wise beyond his years, is a loner and a troubled man. He is surrounded by incompetent and damaged people, having to take care of both his senile grandfather and later, after a confrontation with a young street hooker named Erica, her as well.

Henry manages to get by in his day to day life by keeping everything and everyone at arm’s length, a defense mechanism shielding him from making any real commitments in his life or taking on any real responsibility. He is well-read and creative, but lacks any motivation to do anything besides the bare minimum to get by, and teaching seems to come natural to him, almost as if he’s the wiser older brother to all of the troubled teenagers in his classroom.

Brody truly shines in this movie, as he’s given a lot of intense emotional material to chew on, and it’s honestly a shame that he didn’t receive more credit for his performance. The supporting cast consists of an ensemble of other great veteran actors primarily playing other teachers and faculty members in Henry’s currently assigned school, including Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, James Caan, Tim Blake Nelson, and William Petersen.

Detachment contains many elements of an art film, meaning it’s not your typical linear drama. It’s part character study, part stageplay, with instances of animated illustrations as well as asides (narrated monologues by Brody) that function to further the underlying narrative of the film, asking the audience: Have we failed as adults in creating a healthy environment for our children? Is detaching from all emotion the only way to survive in a world devoid of hope for a brighter future?

Kaye asks a lot of these hard questions, and he leaves the audience with the feeling that, while everything may not be perfect, there is always a chance as long as we as individuals find the courage within ourselves to persevere and be compassionate toward one another.

The Verdict: If you’re a teacher or a mature fan of film and theater interested in a gritty, realistic drama with a side of arthouse flair, Detachment is a film for you.

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