Detachment (2011)

Director: Tony Kaye
Writer: Carl Lund
Cast: Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen, Bryan Cranston, Sami Gayle, Betty Kaye, Louis Zorich, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Seen on: 28.10.2022

Content Note: suicide

Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a substitute teacher. He comes highly recommended and could probably find a fix position somewhere, but he prefers the distance that being a substitute allows him to keep to his students, and pretty much everyone. As he takes a position in the school of Principal Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden) for a couple of months and starts to form connections there, he also encounters a young woman, a girl really – Erica (Sami Gayle). Erica lives on the street and gets by with the help of sex work. Unwilling to leave her like that, Henry offers her his sofa for a night.

Detachment was a suffocatingly smug film that destroys any chance of gettings its message across by the feeling of superiority that oozes out of every frame. It’s been a while that I hated a film that much.

The film poster showing Henry (Adrien Brody) teaching in a completely wrecked classroom with no students.

From what I gather, writer Carl Lund was a teacher himself and he obviously put all of his frustration with the school system into this film. This includes scenes where characters, mostly Henry himself, (and a couple of actual teachers) rant directly into the camera about the state of things. And I’m not saying that they don’t have good points (though some of the good points get lost in their anger), but the way this was delivered was absolutely insufferable.

Although it might have worked if I hadn’t started to hate Henry pretty immediately. He is so unashamedly glorified by the film that one feels like the film expects us all to whip out prayer beads and fall to our knees in the face of his heroic stoicism and sacrifice. Pretty much all the women and girls in the film fall in love with him, and those that don’t, admire him anyway. His students adore him as he achieves what everybody else fails to do. He strides through life convinced that he is right about everything, and most of the time the film seems to prove him right.

Henry (Adrien Brody) and Erica (Sami Gayle) sitting on a bench together.

It posits Henry as the savior of the world, and when he fails to save everybody, it’s not his fault either because he did everything right. It made me incredibly uncomfortable to watch him take in Erica, for example. Not because he is a single man taking in a teenage sex worker with a probable history of abuse, but because he does so on a whim and doesn’t think for a second what it means to offer somebody a safe place in that way, especially if you’re not prepared to go the distance. When he realizes that he is probably not prepared for what this means, instead of talking to Erica, he just calls social workers on her and has her carted off to a group home. It’s a harrowing moment and the film is so preoccupied with Henry making the right choices that it fails to consider what this means for Erica. And so we get a sickly sweet scene in the end where Henry visits Erica who is happy in general and overjoyed to see him, instead of pissed off as she would have any right to be.

Another uncomfortable moment was when we got a glimpse at the principal’s private life with her husband (Bryan Cranston) that turns weird in a sexual way very quickly, adds nothing to the story, and made me wonder about Lund’s feelings about his own principal when he was a teacher.

In the end, Detachment achieved nothing but have me oscillate between hating and uncomfortable. The star-studded cast and the obvious passion that went into the film notwithstanding.

Henry (Adrien Bordy) teaching his class.

Summarizing: ugh.

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