Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Detachment - Digital Download Review


Theatrical Release Date: March 16, 2012

Is there really anything more we can learn from yet another movie trying to dissect our problems with the American education system? Apparently someone thought so and because of that we now have Detachment, a film that attempts to take a different approach to some well worn material.

Review Vital Stats:
Service: Xbox Zune Marketplace
Download Type: Rental
Picture Quality: HD

Loves: Inspirational stories with a meaningful message
Likes: Just about the entire cast
Neutral: When a movie lays the drama on a bit too thick
Hates: That much of the talented roster of actors were underutilized
From: The guy who made American History X

These High School/Teacher dramas are not what I would call a favorite genre of mine. But they also aren't my least favorite either. They fall somewhere between sports dramas (being at the low end of the spectrum) and romantic dramas (being at the high end). Just like those sports films though, even my own indifference in them cannot discount the fact that there have been a great many films featuring the student/teacher relationship and how the power of a single person's belief in the potential of others that have been written off can prove to be a winning formula. My personal favorites include Stand & Deliver, Lean On Me and even the more violent (and slightly absurd) offering of a film like 187. I can't help but get swept up in the idea of a group of delinquents rising to the challenge and proving all the naysayers wrong by doing what everyone told them they could never do, which is to succeed. Well, guess what? That is not what Detachment is about despite the somewhat misleading trailer. What is it about exactly? I will tell you.

This is not your typical film where a new teacher comes into a school filled with unruly kids who terrorize their teachers and must be put in their place. It certainly starts out that way but it becomes so much more than that as the film pushes forward. Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a substitute teacher whose latest gig has him taking over a High School English class for a month. The students are rambunctious, his fellow faculty members are each dealing with their own crisis and he himself has a ton of issues that need sorting out. This is the story of a school filled with broken and lost souls that have either given up on life or are looking for someway out which we see through the eyes of Henry, a man who has found a way to detach himself emotionally and physically from the world around him.

Surprisingly we spend very little time in the actual classroom.

Detachment in its simplest terms is a tragic and thoughtful look at the current state of the United States educational system and how it is failing not only the students and the parents but the teachers as well. Unlike many other films in this genre, this is not a story about a single teacher and his students. This is the story of the school, the people that go there to learn and the people who go there to teach. We are not focused on just one classroom or just one teacher, we get glimpses of a handful of faculty members ranging from the noble but inconsequential principa,l Carol Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden), the at-her-wits-end guidance counselor, Dr. Parker (Lucy Liu), the tenured teacher who has seen it all, Mr. Seaboldt (James Caan), the lonely teacher who carries on regardless of her student's threats, Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks) and finally to the substitute teacher who is there to do his job as best he can and simply move on.

Another difference from many other similar films is that the school itself is more or less normal. It isn't run down, there is never any talk about budgetary concerns and the students are not portrayed as wanting to destroy the world. The kids certainly have issues but it isn't anything so extreme that we couldn't imagine an environment similar to the one depicted here in one of our local schools. That background mixed with the focus on the faculty is one of the films many strengths in my opinion, it approaches its subject from a very real point of view. Early on in the film there is a scene where on Henry's first day in class he ejects a trouble making student out of his class. For the next half hour or so I kept waiting for the moment when that kid would return and continue being a pest throughout the rest of the film where by the end he would finally realize the value of a good education and repent for all his past sins. That is standard fare for films in the High School drama genre but that doesn't happen here. That kid is not even seen again until the end of the film where he is suddenly a model student and is part of the class proper. Why do we not see him again? Because the movie is much more interested in the big picture as opposed to just one class of misfits.

Henry and Erica are more alike then either realizes.

It is not a bad thing that didn't go down that way either. As a matter of fact it was rather refreshing when I realized after watching Henry leave school, go home and see him start to deal with issues outside of school that this was going to be more than just another simple movie about a classroom. Other than a few quick scenes in that classroom, we spend the majority of time with Henry during his day to day life while inter cutting between him and some of the more traditional events surrounding the other faculty members. Probably one of my favorite scenes in the film, which mostly had to do with the actor more than anything, was a scene where we see Mr. Seaboldt sit down with a student as a fill in for the Vice Principal who had called in sick that day (something that happens regularly mind you). He must convince this teenage girl who likes to dress with as little clothing as possible to put some extra layers on and the way in which he approaches the subject was both fitting (considering how often he must do this sort of thing) and hilarious. Just to clarify though, this is not a comedy in any form of the meaning, but the way that scene went down had me in stitches because of how perfectly it led up to that reveal.

That brings me to the only real negative I can level at the film which is that it can lay on the misery a bit too thick at times. I am not saying there needs to be a laugh a minute or any laughs at all, it just starts to get to be a bit much when we start to realize that there isn't one character in this thing that doesn't appear to be on the brink of committing suicide. All those faculty members are depressed beyond belief, and rightfully so given what they must put up with, but for a film that has gone to such lengths to avoid many of the more absurd cliches of its genre it sure as hell doesn't mind pulling out the violin at a moments notice (metaphorically speaking that is) to help emphasize the despair in each persons life. It would be alright if we had at least some sort of positivity thrown in there but everyone appears to be circling the drain when it comes to both their professional and personal lives with the lone exception of Henry. People have problems, that is a fact. But most human beings also have joy in their lives in some form. There is no joy in any of these peoples lives which just rang a little false and somewhat manipulative to me and became more than slightly distracting by the end.

Henry does find time to help some of his students out.

Take the teacher Mr. Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson) for example. First we see that he commands absolutely zero respect in class where he can't even get his students to sit down and watch a video. Then we see him routinely go out to the school yard where he proceeds to lay up against the chain link fence in hopes that someone or anyone would notice him. Once the school day is over we see him go home to a family that doesn't ever acknowledge his existence. It got to the point where I was half expecting to see him commit suicide at some point. While all of his actions do make sense, due to his family treating him as though he is invisible, it still comes off as overly somber and clearly manipulative. That is an extreme example when considering many of the other complications in the film but the other characters aren't much better off. All the characters felt as though they were robots programmed to suffer, to show us how horrible life is for the modern day teacher. I know teaching is a difficult (if rewarding) job but I don't need such extreme examples to inform me of this fact.

Henry has it the worst of all though, which makes sense since he is our main focal point but it still goes a bit too far with the problems he is faced with. He is alone in the world (by choice), he does a job that many consider to be dead end but he does it so that he isn't forced to grow any sort of attachment to anyone or anything for too long. On top of that he has his mentally unstable grandfather who is currently residing in a hospital. If that wasn't enough, the hospital is poorly run and doesn't offer the care he needs. Then you have the added bonus that there is some sort of dark history in regards to his grandfather and his deceased mother (who just so happened to kill herself). While I confess to the idea that there are most likely people out there with as many issues as Henry has, it still felt like it went way overboard on the whole melancholy thing.

Henry tries to figure Erica out.

Thankfully though there is a light at the end of the tunnel for him (and us) when he meets Erica (Sami Gayle), a 16 year old girl living as a prostitute on the streets. The semi-unorthodox relationship that builds between the two of them was about the only time we actually got to see anyone in the film have some semblance of hope in their lives. When they first meet, Erica isn't in the most flattering of positions and Henry isn't exactly keeping it together either, but what is clear from the get go is that they both share a connection that goes deeper than your typical friendship. Perhaps it was that they saw a little of themselves in each other or perhaps they were each so starved for another person to confide in that they ended up being each others salvation. Either way, their tale was probably the only real uplifting element in a film that was in desperate need of some hope.

What made their scenes, their story and the film in general work though was the superlative performance by Adrien Brody. You can tell that this is more than just another acting gig for the guy, he believes full on with the message of the film and does it justice by turning in what is his best dramatic performance since The Pianist. When he talks to that classroom full of young adolescent minds or is comforting the scarred and misguided Erica who finds herself under his care I was fully invested in everything he said or did. Even scenes that should have induced some heavy eye rolling from me based on how melodramatic things got such as a couple very disturbing and revelatory scenes between him and his grandfather made me tear up a bit as did the culmination of his care giving for Erica. Make no bones about it, this movie works because of what he puts into the role as well as the backup he gets from some truly exceptional, if a bit underused, performances from the rest of a cast filled with some real talent.

Henry tries to relate to one of his students.

Everyone is bringing their A-game here though regardless of screen time, not just Brody. This also includes a fine feature film debut by Sami Gayle who handled her own quite well during her scenes with the seasoned Brody. She (being an actual 16 year old) had that perfect blend of childlike innocence and teenage insecurity where I felt just like Henry did. I wanted to reach out and help her as well, she isn't a lost soul just yet and you just kind of want to steer her in the right direction before it is too late for her. Even though they are mostly in the background, the faculty of the High School is almost too good to be in such minor roles. Tim Blake Nelson (who is no stranger to character actor work), Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Christina Hendricks, Blythe Danner and Bryan Cranston (who is in the film all of a couple of minutes and still leaves an impression) all add that extra layer of depth to characters who in other hands would have been nothing more than cardboard cutouts.

In case you haven't been able to tell yet, I liked Detachment quite a lot. Sure, it lays on the depression pretty thick at some points and seems to dwell a little too long on the negatives and push aside any chance for some sort of positivity to find its way into these people's lives. But that doesn't detract from the expert direction by Tony Kaye, the powerhouse performance by Adrien Brody or the timely message it delivers to a populace that either chooses to ignore these issues our teachers and students are facing on a daily basis or are just ignorant to such facts. I found myself completely engaged from beginning to end and despite my problems with the overall atmosphere, it does conclude in a much more uplifting manner than you might think which felt true for the most part even if all our characters didn't get the care or attention that would have fleshed them out a bit more. Detachment is currently available through On Demand services such as Time Warner and itunes as a pre-theatrical release and will be released theatrically on March 16th. I highly suggest that you...




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