Detachment, directed by Tony Kaye (American History X), stars Adrien Brody as Henry Barthes, an emotionally wounded substitute teacher, who struggles with childhood pain and the seeming futility of trying to get through to students who are filled with their own. The film opens with a series of testimonials from teachers, almost as if the following will be a documentary about teaching. What is interesting is that quite a few of them explain that they just kind of fell into teaching, which explains some of those apathetic teachers out there in the world.
Then we see Barthes showing up for his current assignment, which is at a very troubled school. There are nightmare students who spit on teachers and fling their briefcases across the room, girls who show up barely dressed, and parents that cuss out teachers in the office. It’s almost unbelievably ugly. The principal (Marcia Gay Haden) is about to lose her job due to low test scores, and counselors – played by a surprisingly good Lucy Liu and a hilarious, drunk James Caan – struggle to feel like they’re making any kind of difference. Christina Hendrick is a frazzled but hopeful teacher. Everyone there is just trying to make it through the day. There’s a great scene where a representative for No Child Left Behind gives a cheerfully inane speech to the teachers, who end up walking out.
There’s also a line Barthes says about how a substitute’s job is just to make sure no one dies in your classroom and makes it to their next period. As someone who was a sub for one miserable year, I can totally relate to that! (It’s a real oversight though that none of the students call him Mr. Barfs. Because that would happen.)
Barthes is an excellent teacher, however, which we discover when he deftly handles an altercation as soon as he enters the classroom. He lectures with the same intensity that comes across in his sporadic, poetic narration throughout the film. It’s obvious that he has a tightly wound interior world, and teenagers can certainly connect with that. He remains a substitute teacher though in an attempt to stay uncommitted, which reflects the rest of his life; his studio apartment is bare, and he seems to have no relationships other than with his ailing grandfather, who may or may not have abused Barthes’ mother.
The story’s emotional core comes from a new relationship that Barthes stumbles across: a teenage prostitute named Erica (Sami Gayle) harrasses him enough on his way home from seeing his grandfather late at night that he takes her home and feeds her. Then she stays and latches onto him as someone trustworthy, someone like family. Gayle is mesmerizing as Erica; she’s the perfect mix of a hopeful child and a jaded empty shell. Much like Barthes.
The movie is shot with a lot of super close-ups, quick cuts, flashed memory images and even short animated sequences. It feels heavy and occasionally overdone – sometimes the dialogue is too on the nose – but over all it’s wonderfully acted and very gripping. I recommend it, but only if you don’t need cheering up. Detachment opens on March 23rd at Laemmle Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica.
Image via Amazon