Directed by Tony Kaye (American History X), Detachment tells the story of an emotionally withdrawn substitute teacher, Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), whose world is turned upside down as his professional and personal life simultaneously begin to unravel and the walls he’s built around himself crumble, leaving him completely exposed. Henry’s story is echoed in the lives of his fellow high school teachers, each trying their hardest to maintain a healthy emotional perspective and distance in an environment that pushes each of them to the edge of chaos.
Henry visits his senile grandfather, who suffers from advanced dementia, everyday in the hospital. His grandfather is constantly haunted by hallucinations of his daughter, Henry’s mother, who killed herself when Henry was just a young boy. In a rare moment of clarity, Henry’s grandfather suggests that it was this event that caused Henry to shut down emotionally for the rest of his life. Henry’s defensive armor, however, is slowly chipped away throughout the film by three women: Meredith (Betty Kaye), an artistically gifted student who is brutally mocked by her peers; Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks), a fellow teacher and love interest; and Erica (Sami Gayle), a young girl prostituting herself on the street whom he takes into his home.
Though Detachment suffers from a cliché conception of teachers and students in public high schools in America, it manages to become something more profound. The story is not simply about youth, angst and violence in the face of authority; it explores the human capacity to contain and categorize these day-to-day atrocities and disassociate mentally and emotionally from reality. The film demonstrates how the callous fronts of each of these teachers belies a fragile, volatile interior. This facade of stability and control is easily cracked, and it becomes difficult for each of the characters to keep their school life separate from their private one, and their interior rage, confusion and impotency from exploding into the world around them.
Detachment is exceptionally well-acted. Its all-star cast gives nuanced and complex performances that bring each character to life. The plot, although initially appearing simple and uncomplicated, explores its issues in a way that offers a richer, fuller examination of the situation. Detachment manages to discuss and analyze the current disrepair of the public educational system without ever placing the blame on anyone specifically. Rather, it approaches the issue from a humanistic standpoint, making the topic both relatable and refreshing.
Detachment is a powerful, incisive and emotionally stirring film that provides keen insight into an over-saturated topic.
Director: Tony Kaye
Writer: Carl Lund
Starring: Adrien Brody, Christina Hendricks, Marcia Gay Harden
Release Date: Mar. 16, 2012