British director Tony Kaye is a ‘controversial’ figure in Hollywood following the furore that erupted around his first fiction feature American History X (US 1998) – when he attempted to disown the picture and sued New Line Pictures. His background is advertising, documentary and music videos – which he was still able to produce when Hollywood producers wouldn’t return his calls. Detachment is in some ways his ‘come-back’ feature. Though clearly a low budget film, it boasts a fantastic cast including Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, Lucy Liu, James Caan, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson and Christina Hendricks.
Detachment attempts to give the audience an insight into the current state of public high schools in urban America. There is an outline plot with three main narratives focusing on the relationships between substitute teacher Adrien Brody and his grandfather, one of his students and a teenage runaway he befriends. Each of these narratives has a resolution over three weeks, but the film encompasses a wider selection of characters associated with the school and these characters are the players in sequences that are more like sketches. There are also some animated sequences. The film begins with animated credits utilising a blackboard and vox pops from presumably ‘real’ teachers discussing their attitudes towards the profession. Adrien Brody as ‘Henry Barthes’ (the title of the film is from a quote by Albert Camus) also reads to us what seem like diary entries and we get to see flashbacks to his own troubled childhood. Brody was reported as having accepted the role (and becoming a producer) because his own father was a public school teacher.
You have probably gathered from this description that Detachment is not a conventional high school drama of the type that perhaps began with Blackboard Jungle in the 1950s and continues with more recent titles like Dangerous Minds (1995). These films generally feature a liberal teacher who wins the hearts and minds of difficult students. Henry Barthes in Detachment is himself a troubled figure and though he does try to engage with his students, he isn’t necessarily successful and the film shows the struggles of the other teachers in the school (although Henry’s is the only classroom we see – most of the other teachers are seen in the staffroom or school offices).
There have been a few negative reviews of the film, but the majority of audiences seem to have found the film compelling and have endorsed the selection by writer Carl Lund of confrontations between teachers and students that appear in the film. If you’ve ever taught in a school classroom you will have experienced some of these – critics from sheltered backgrounds might not understand, but the film is in this sense quite realistic. The cast is generally excellent and Kaye’s direction (and cinematography) is very lively. I enjoyed the animation and some of the other devices. This isn’t to say that there aren’t weaknesses in the approach, though I think that I probably need to see the film again to make a more balanced judgement. One problem is that we don’t know the situation that Henry is in when he reads his statements as voiceovers – is he in prison, in hospital or perhaps writing a biography? The other potential problem is Henry’s relationship with the young woman on the streets who Henry takes home because she is clearly too young and too damaged/abused to survive for long on her own. I did think that a) she ‘brushed up’ too well and looked far too healthy after only a couple of days of recuperation, b) the situation seemed unreal in comparison with the all too real problems in the school and c) I eventually felt manipulated by this narrative into making a conventional Hollywood emotional response. On the other hand . . . other viewers enjoyed this aspect of the film and it does work in terms of melodrama. The main point is, I think, that Detachment has so many different elements both working together and offering different ways of presenting its overall commentary, that it doesn’t really matter if one doesn’t work – you’ll soon be offered another.
Anyone who has worked in, cares for or has simply thought about education should see this film. I doubt you will be bored if you seek it out! Here’s the trailer. The film opens on Friday July 13th in the UK – though I suspect it will be difficult to find, so keep your eyes peeled.