Review: Detachment (2011)

Reviewed by: Justin Rumenapp
@The_Ill_Phantom

Everyone in Detachment is a train wreck.  Detachment centers on lead sad sack Henry Barthes (Adrian Brody, The Jacket, Splice), a substitute teacher who spends his days trying to reach underachieving students and his nights trying to care for his dying grandfather (Louis Zorich).  Over a half-dozen other subplots are featured, including a principal that is dealing with falling test scores (Marcia Gay Harden), a pill-popping guidance counselor who deals with students as crassly as possible (James Caan), another counselor who is barely holding on to her sanity by a thread (Lucy Liu), a teacher who feels she has no life outside of her classroom (Christina Hendricks) and a teacher who is railroaded in class by day and ignored by his family by night (Tim Blake Nelson).  The male students here are aggressive and violent and the females are generally promiscuous.  Two kids that are highlighted include an artistic girl whose talents are maligned by her parents (Betty Kaye) and an underage prostitute (Sami Gayle).

The film flashes through, but doesn’t necessarily linger on, any one of dozens of issues facing educators today.  A particularly telling scene involves Barthes uneasily resisting an upset (female) student’s desire for a hug, lest the interaction be construed as perverted.  The human thing to do, of course, would be to help this student through her immediate breakdown before trying to get her to a licensed professional, but personal and societal pressures prevent him from even returning a hug.  Parents are generally absent from the film.  When they do appear, they tend to yell at either teachers or students.  An exceptionally comic exchange involves a father demanding a free laptop to assist with his son’s learning disability, which he diagnosed over the internet.  Among the more complex exchanges, Detachment goes for easy targets such as “No Child Left Untested” and the level of tragedy any given character goes through approaches melodrama.  It would be an bit untruth to say that the film is an exposé on Problems in American Schools(!), but rather how any given problem at school (and the film very much wishes to extend this sentiment to the world at large) is due to miscommunication and lack of connection.

Detachment uses several flashy tricks to tell its story, and they generally are used in a way germane to the off-kilter tone story.  Barthes gives his insights to the story via an unnamed documentary that is being filmed within the film.  It's never directly commented on and is functionally the modernized equivalent of voice over narration.  In addition, the film frequently cuts to show flashbacks of Henry's mother (using different film stock of course), characters will speak directly into the camera, and the film heavily uses jump cuts within scenes.  Flamboyant, yes, but these tricks also create a unique atmosphere and level of technical competence that far surpasses similarly themed made-for-TV fare.


Billed as a "Tony Kaye Talkie," Detachment is Kaye's first narrative film to be widely available to audiences since American History X.  While there isn't necessarily a scene in Detachment that matches American History X's "curb stomping," Kaye hasn't lost his flair for shocking imagery.  It's debatable if images of diseased genitals and dead naked women were 100% necessary, they certainly add to the general air of unease about the proceedings. Detachment was written by Carl Lund and is his first screenplay. 

Detachment in turns states the obvious, and in others becomes quite poignant.  Whatever its flaws, I have no doubt that this is exactly the film Tony Kaye set out to make.  That Detachment is also entertaining, thought provoking, and well made on a technical level is a bonus to viewers. 

(c) 2012

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