Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a substitute teacher at arguably the worst high school in cinematic history. Joe Clark, The Principle, The Substitute, The Class of 1984 and those kids with The Dangerous Minds would all be eaten alive at this Brooklyn High School. But Henry can deal with these kids, maybe because he’s just as messed up as they are, if not more so, plus he’s just a sub so he won’t be getting too attached to them anyway. Thus we have the latest film from certified lunatic / brilliant director Tony Kaye and his ‘love song’ to the United States Public School system ‘Detachment’. Or as I like to call it, ‘To Sir, with Hatred’.

Henry might be detached, but he’s a damn good teacher. He knows his subject matter and he knows how to get his kids interested in his lessons. When they try to challenge him, be it physical, verbal or emotionally, he also knows how to neutralize them. Still, this school is a mess. A nightmare. The students are either violent or completely apathetic, their parents or even worse blaming the teachers for their shortcomings as parents, and the majority of the teachers aren’t much better, most of them wishing these little monsters would just go away and die.

Henry’s issues extend far beyond the classroom however. One day on the bus ride home he sees a teenage prostitute getting punched in the face. He tries to ignore her but she follows him around. This girl, Erica (Sami Gayle), needs to be in somebody’s high school or a shelter as opposed to turning tricks, which could be why Henry takes her home, gives her a bath, gives her some food and a place to sleep. Essentially becoming her default caregiver. Henry is also dealing with his grandfather (Louis Zorich), tucked away in a nursing home with dementia, and doing the crazy things that old people with dementia often do.

One of the reasons that Henry is probably taking to this young damaged girl is that he didn’t have the best childhood either. Through flashbacks we can see that Henry’s childhood was the polar opposite of ideal with his drug addicted mother who has a relationship with his grandfather that was only hinted at. This is also why Henry is able to handle these troubled kids, but also why Henry chooses to keep his distance.

Unfortunately, Henry’s issues of abandonment and his inability to sustain any kind of long term relationship are going to come to the forefront. There’s going to come a time, soon, when Henry needs to get more involved, stay attached, involve himself in the lives of some people to hopefully help these people. Henry is a good man, but he can’t save them all.

If ever there was a film that was loaded with discussion points, ‘Detachment’ would be that movie. I can visualize the lengthy Q&A sessions that must’ve been taking place after screenings in which the director and his star took the stage. If I were in one of those audiences, sporting my tweed jacket with the patches on the elbow, my scarf bunched up around my neck, and my unlit pipe in my left hand, I would ask the British director on what shaped his decidedly nihilistic views of the American public school system that I’m pretty sure he knows nothing about. You want extremes? You have extremes in this lost educational facility. From the board who runs the system and sees this school only as a revenue generating source, to Marcia Gay Hardin’s detached and clinically depressed principle, down to the uniformly profane, lost, hopeless and futureless students… America’s future is looking grim if we to use ‘Detachment’ as a basis for where we are with our public schools.

In this same Q&A we would ask Adrien Brody why his character, a man who seems to want nothing to do with anybody on a personal level, chose teaching of all occupations, where some kind of attachment is almost unavoidable. He would probably explain to me in, in actor speak, that this is the inner conflict that plagues Henry Barthes. The desire to be involved, while at the same time cultivating his inherent need stay on the outside looking in, because of the tragedy in his childhood. He would no doubt say it much better and with much more verbosity that I just did. Then I’d cut back to Tony Kaye, who by now is probably making hand puppets in the shadows, and ask him about the phenomenal cast he assembled for his movie, particularly James Caan who was so awesome in the little bit he was in this movie, he should probably has his own Showtime TV show.

Eventually I’d have to get around to telling these two gifted people what I thought about their movie, that it was gripping, complex, predictable, seemed to lack focus, and that they needed to do more with whatever storyline they were angling for with the teacher character played by Christina Hendricks. I’d also accuse them of sending out mixed messages, and finally I’d tell Adrien Brody that in ‘Detachment’ he has given his finest performance since ‘The Pianist. That’s what I’d tell them at that Q&A screener if they had it in my town, as if they’d actually let me speak, because ‘Detachment’ is the type of movie that only Q&A pseudo sophisticated type audiences travel to go see, and that’s a shame.

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