Review of Detachment

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This 2011 drama film revolves around a substitute teacher who drifts from classroom to classroom, but discovers a unique connection to the students and teachers during one specific assignment.
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After attending an advance press screening of Detachment at the prestigious Charles Aidikoff Screening Room on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, I've found myself incredibly depressed and emotionally wrung out. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The film, which made the festival rounds last year, starts it's theatrical run this week.

Detachment tells the story of a failing school as seen by professional substitute teacher Henry Barthes, played by Adrien Brody (The Pianist, King Kong). The ensemble cast also includes Marcia Gay Harden (Mystic River, Into the Wild), Christina Hendricks (Mad Men, Firefly), Lucy Liu, and James Caan. Tony Kaye (American History X) directs.

This is an immensely well crafted, brutal film. It portrays people across the school system and outside it all desperately trying to survive in a world where connecting to and caring for one another has become so difficult and so poisoned that those few still making an effort are teetering on the breaking point.

Teachers are in turns ignored and assaulted, victims of a system they thought they were going to save. Students are resigned and abandoned when they aren't hateful and apathetic. Not a single parent shows up to Parent-Teacher Conference Night, but many will scream and threaten to sue over imagined personal slights. A government shill admonishes teachers to do better, not because their students are being let down, but because falling test scores are driving down real estate prices. In his off hours, Brody's Mr. Barthes does his best to care for an ailing father in an assisted living center and finds himself the reluctant steward of a teenage prostitute.

You are never given a respite, never given a chance to breath. This is a good thing. Most films of this sort are careful to give you a white knight; some mechanism by which you can reassure yourself. That's not the case here. If anything, Detachment goes out of it's way to provide emotional jabs and body blows. It's a much more powerful, much more honest experience as a result.

The performances by Brody and the rest of the cast are top notch, including newcomers Sami Gayle and Betty Kaye.

There are a few quibbles, such a a narration / framing sequence that seems to be going somewhere and then doesn't, and an ending that's maybe a bit too sunny for such an otherwise despondent film, but these hardly detract from one of the more worthwhile experiences you'll have in movie-going this year.

Detachment is available now through Video On Demand, with a limited theatrical release starting in New York on March 16th.