In many ways different from American History X, Detachment is no less powerful and Kaye has made an excellent choice in casting Adrien Brody. As the film’s lead, Henry Barthes, Brody portrays an emotionally detached substitute teacher who has just arrived at a floundering urban high school. Fearless in the face of his feral students, Henry resides in a world of suppressed pain. Not altogether uncaring, he does his best to help others; whether they’re his students, his senile grandfather or a young girl, selling her body on the streets. It is Henry’s relationship with underage prostitute Erica (Sami Gayle, putting in a terrific feature film debut) that epitomises Barthes’ character and provides further context for his approach in the classroom and his personal life. As much as Detachment is an ode to teachers, so too is it a scathing condemnation of poor parenting. At no point are parents depicted in a positive light in Kaye’s film. Though penned by Carl Lund, this is, still, rather ironic given that Kaye has cast his own daughter, Betty, in a pivotal role. As a result, Detachment’s message is bleak and haunting, yet carries more than a hint of imbalance.
Beginning with the Albert Camus quote: “And I have never felt so deeply at one and at the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world”, Detachment is a film populated with lost souls, young and old. From the lost innocence of Erica to Meredith’s (the aforementioned Betty Kaye) desperate angst to the empty lives of numerous school staffers, misery and dissatisfaction is served up by the handful. So especially welcome, are James Caan’s much-needed wise-cracks when he’s not busy popping pills or consoling Lucy Liu’s deeply frustrated guidance counsellor. Rays of light are few and far between in Detachment, but much of the pleasure to be had is in the marvellous cast, which along with Brody’s exceptional performance, also includes strong turns from a lonely Christina Hendricks, a disturbed Tim Blake Nelson, and an embattled Marcia Gay Harden.
Much like the darkest of poems, Detachment’s themes may be disheartening or outright depressing, but the statements are made in beautiful fashion. Kaye has achieved a partial documentary presentation to Detachment which includes testimonial from a ragged Henry during several cutaways. Kaye also utilises numerous blackboard animations (by Rebecca Foster) to further enhance the impact of events and selections of dialogue. Luckily, Detachment is magnificently cut together with the animations, various camera perspectives, flashback sequences, and Henry’s “interview” segments flowing together seamlessly.
The only real problem with Detachment is how weighty it is. The film has a point to make, but at times it is too heavy handed and paints the world blacker than most would honestly see it. While all the characters are interesting in their own ways, some, such as Meredith the depressed artsy student with a camera, seem too clichéd. Though a relatively minor qualm, such examples lend an overly melodramatic tone to Detachment.
Slight misgivings aside, Detachment dares to be downbeat in the face of the escapism usually offered within the bounds of the cinema and does so with aplomb. Brody excels and Kaye’s strong supporting cast help to keep the dramatic turn of events grounded firmly enough. Pessimistically captivating, Detachment won’t be making many feel-good films of the summer lists, but it proves to be a strong, if long overdue follow-up to American History X.