Brutal, astute and deeply affecting, Detachment is the story of a mysterious substitute teacher, Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) and his aim to make a difference in a cynical and distraught world. From Tony Kaye, director of American History X, this piece criticises the current state of education and ruthlessly depicts the the struggle of students, teachers and those outside looking in.
First off, Brody’s performance is impeccable. His portrayal is understated and sensitive but raw when it needs to be. This film is worth seeing for him alone. And to top it off, the cast is thick with outstanding actors with the likes of Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Lucy Liu and Christina Hendricks making brief yet memorable appearances. Alongside the stars is an excellent performance by newcomer Sami Gayle, a relatively unknown actress who plays Erica, a young girl Barthes unintentionally befriends. No character is thin in this picture with rounded, brilliant performances across the board.
The story is hard and unforgiving, but exceptionally moving. The first hour feels like an unrelenting pulse of tragedy, but the portrayal has enough truth and guts to push through. Explorations into prostitution, mental illness, dark pasts and threatened futures create the image of a loveless world. Yet we find glimmers of hope in small acts of kindness, and it is these that save the film from the despair it threatens to fall into, as films like Precious (2009) do.
The direction has its quirks, which I enjoyed but may not be to everyone’s taste. The stop-frame animation-style blackboard sequences give a breather to the starkness of the real world but may irritate the more traditional viewer. Likewise the didactic speeches ring true to the politically liberal but may not to those who don’t share such views. However, the quality of the cinematography and the astute direction is undeniably excellent and makes these possible flaws unimportant.
From Dead Poet’s Society (1989) to Mona Lisa Smile (2003), films about teaching have resonance to any who have passed through the school system. The capacity for teachers to inspire and encourage students makes worthy film material. And although tragic, Detachment digs deep into a trench of emotion and refuses to hold back from what it finds.
With limited screenings and an online release, this gem is worth seeking out. Its careful, shrewd portrayal of the state of education is matched only by the actors’ brilliant performances. Not one to forget in a hurry.