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Detachment


Maybe it’s just me, but the entertainment industry has a warped view of contemporary public high schools. It seems one of two things is happening in most high school movies/tv series: the school is a haven for thugs, criminals, future (or current) prostitutes and strippers with no sense of moral integrity or respect, or the school is one big cesspool of hormones waiting to explode. This dichotomy inevitably leads to hope for the future from the former school, and immature humor from the latter. Detachment avoids this funnel of emotions—barely—by making everything as devoid of happiness and hope as possible.

Grade:

While the intensely depressing state of the school is a feature of the film, the true focus is on professional substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), a traveling salesman of the teaching profession, if you will. With Henry, we get a man so devoid of emotion and feeling that his humanity is questionable. In fact, the imagery of the film consistently evokes this concept.

Henry lives in an apartment that looks as if it is awaiting a new tenant. His only connection to the world is his dying grandfather. He even has a job that requires him to come in, keep the kids from killing each other, and leave without a trace. By the end, the director decides to appropriately blur his face out to signify Henry’s distinct lack of being. If it weren’t for the events of the film, he’d waste away into oblivion without any mark on the world whatsoever.

As an English teacher in a notoriously awful school full of some of the most twisted children imaginable—a kid, a hammer, a backpack, and a cat = the tone of this film*—Henry has to find a way to inspire his kids. One would think this becomes the direction of the film, but this hypothetical person would be wrong. Everything is about Henry. He teaches about breaking free from the concept of “ubiquitous assimilation” and the “doublethink” problems the media feeds our youth. However, Henry exemplifies the latter of these principles.

Treading water. That’s all Henry does in life. He feels everything around him is a cause for emptiness within himself, yet he preaches to these troubled youths that there is hope outside high school. It may be hard now, but there is a future out there that can be achieved. Consequently, this method of teaching backfires fatally as one passionate student discovers that Mr. Barthes doesn’t even utilize his own lessons. He’d rather look longingly into the distance with puppy-dog eyes than make a concerted effort to find happiness.

Continuing this dual nature theme, Henry may be missing the emotions and reactions necessary to make him human, but like Dexter Morgan, he can fake it with the best of them. Showing compassion and caring for these kids gives them hope. This becomes most prevalent when Henry allows a teen prostitute (maybe 14-16) to stay with him—played by Sami Gayle, who is shaky at first, but finishes strong. Their platonic relationship becomes the reason for happiness in Henry’s life, much to his surprise, as he finally meets someone who has been hurt in similar ways.

Outside Adrien Brody and the students, Detachment boasts a deep cast with Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Bryan Cranston (briefly), and Gil Grissom himself, William Petersen. All of these actors and actresses add something to the film that helps the plot and characters move along, but each and every one of them is incredibly underutilized. Lucy Liu and James Caan are the biggest victims of this injustice. Caan brings the only ray of medicated sunshine to the film as Mr. Seaboldt, while Liu deftly portrays the inevitable mental breakdown a child psychologist would have in this sort of situation. It’s a shame and a missed opportunity, but the goal of the film was clear from the beginning.

Be depressing. That’s it. Every scene, every event, every character. It becomes a game for the viewer as you guess what could be the most depressing ending for this particular sequence. Sadly, more often than not, you underestimate. This is not to say the film is bad; on the contrary, actually, as Detachment brings a unique and poignant style to an otherwise overdone genre.

Subtle changes could have drastically changed the film and made it more upbeat, but that wasn’t the intention. Honesty and adherence to the true nature of the situation were clearly the themes, but they occasionally were overwhelming and ended up suffocating an otherwise interesting film. As the film suggests, everything is temporary, except the recurrence of sadness.

*I seriously wish this wasn’t an actual scene.

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