MOVIES THAT DON’T SUCK: Life of emotionally distant substitute teacher becomes compelling in ‘Detachment’

There are few things more depressing than a movie about the American school system.

That’s not a political statement. It just seems like every time the camera is pointed somewhere besides the defeats and victories on the football field or the interpersonal dramas of the students, I end up feeling depressed after the credits roll.

Considering the source material Tony Kaye had for 2011’s “Detachment,” a bleak little drama about a deeply flawed public school, he wouldn’t have had to try very hard to make it a downer. I mean, the film starts with teachers telling the audience about how they never really intended to be teachers at all but were trapped in the position.

In “Detachment,” Adrian Brody plays Henry Barthes, an emotionally distant substitute teacher who imparts vital knowledge to students as he bounces from school to school and deals with the emotional trauma of his mother’s suicide when he was young. Also, his grandfather (his only living relative since a young age) is on his deathbed.

Well, I did say that Kaye didn’t have to try hard to make it depressing. I didn’t say he wouldn’t.

Henry arrives at the school to find it in shambles. Because the school is a destination for all the students who aren’t making the cut at the district’s other schools, Henry (and the other  members of the school’s staff) teaches students who are mostly uncaring and utterly unmotivated.

The majority of the plot deals with Henry and the self-reflection  forced upon him by the arrival of three people in his life.

The first is a fellow teacher (Christina Hendricks), who serves as Henry’s love interest and colleague as he imparts life lessons to his temporary students in his substitute position as an English teacher.The second is a troubled student named Meredith (Betty Kaye) who is depressed, overweight and suffering from a lack of self-confidence.The third is a young prostitute Erica (Sami Gayle), who Henry takes in “Taxi Driver” style (sans the murder).

The film also features more brief (but similarly depressing) subplots, with great performances from Lucy Liu as an increasingly fed-up guidance counselor, James Caan as a comically sardonic teacher and Marcia Gay Harden as a principal who’s on the chopping block for resisting compliance with the state’s new educational policies.

The meaning behind the film’s title is obvious. Henry, still plagued by grief over his mother’s suicide and faced with the death of the only family member he has left, has become “detached” from his own life. He has no friends or other meaningful relationships to speak of and bounces around from school to school in an effort to avoid any kind of commitment.

As I mentioned earlier, it isn’t until Henry is faced with these new relationships that he truly comes to terms with both the tragedies of his life and what he must do to improve upon the man that those tragedies had a hand in making.

The major pitfall for a movie reviewer is the assumption that something depressing is intrinsically profound. It’s all well and good to make someone feel sad as long as it’s going somewhere, which is where “Detachment”’s only real disappointment is.

The only character that develops meaningfully is Henry through his interactions with Erica  and Meredith. (The teacher falls by the wayside plotwise in the latter parts of the film.) The most annoying part about “Detachment” is that nearly everyone seems to have no purpose but to make the viewer feel bad.

For example, we are treated to a series of scenes of the school’s staff’s home life, where we see that they are largely as sad in their home lives as  in their professional ones. Yes, these illustrate the desperate nature of teachers, and is a joy (figuratively speaking) to watch. But the real question is, to what end? Henry and Erica’s plot arc is completed in a satisfying way, but what of the others?

As a romantic comedy might end in a schmaltzy kissing scene with fireworks exploding in the background, “Detachment” ends with that scenario’s inverse. In the film’s final moments, we are shown shots of a bleak version of the school, paper and leaves carpeting the floor, while Henry reads aloud the first few paragraphs of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

However, in light of all its sometimes unresolved negativity and bleakness, “Detachment” gives us a window into the life of a husk of a man slowly being brought back to life and comes highly recommended.

Still, if you’re not looking for a little sadness in your evening, try “Grease” instead. That one ends with a flying car.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email