Directed by: Tony Kaye
Written by: Carl Lund
Starring: Adrien Brody, Christina Hendricks and Marcia Gay Harden
In high school, students rarely consider their teachers’ personal lives. It’s enough that they have battles at home and in the schoolyard, leaving no room to empathize with the very authority figures who reprimand them if they stray from the rule book. American History X director Tony Kaye and Carl Lund bring these frustrations, pains, and resentments into focus by dramatically and poetically expressing the inner thoughts and outer experiences of those tormented by the public school system.
Henry Barthes (Brody) is a substitute teacher – worn down by countless experiences with difficult students, but still passionate about his work with young people. With his grandfather in hospital and haunting memories of a traumatic childhood, Henry strikes a compassionate relationship with a troubled teen prostitute and an overweight student who is the victim of abuse in her home and at school. But the limits of Henry’s aid, and the helplessness that he feels as a result, is the biggest battle of all.
While Detachment boasts a cast of familiar faces including Christina Hendricks, James Caan, Lucy Liu, and Marcia Gay Harden, the only performance that truly stands out is Adrien Brody’s. This may be due to the fact that Detachment would have benefited from casting a majority of unknowns. In the film’s opening, a series of black-and-white interviews with public school teachers are shown. As the teachers speak candidly about their history as public school teachers, there is an authenticity and intimacy to the anger and frustration that they share with the camera. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast, who feel a bit out of place in the halls of a public school in Queens.
What the cast lack, however, is made up in Kaye’s direction. With moments of animation – drawn with child-like simplicity on a chalkboard – Kaye digs into a sadness and helplessness that is shared by teachers and students alike, using Henry’s deeply personal story as a way of connecting to the numerous characters, their private lives, and the wider issues that can be found in the public school system. Detachment does go a little overboard with the dramatics though, and without Adrien Brody, it may have completely gone under.