“You know what the worst thing about this job is? Nobody ever says thank you.”
It’s taken a long time for Detachment (opening in select theaters in New York this Friday and available elsewhere from iTunes or On Demand), to make it to any theaters at all. Its difficulty in finding a distributor has not been for lack of talent. Carl Lund’s script is layered and sensitive, Tony Kaye’s direction is mesmerizing, and it features an all-star cast giving powerhouse performances.
No, the problem is the subject matter and tone. The last movie I saw that could approach Detachment for sheer bleakness was Shame (read my review).But while Shame captured the existential despair of two highly troubled individuals, Detachment’s focus is much broader. It’s a searing indictment of an entire system that designs students (and their teachers) to fail. This movie features domestic violence, child abuse, suicide, teenage prostitution, and an act of senseless cruelty to a cute furry animal that might be an early warning sign of psychotic tendencies. It’s not that there aren’t moments of hope or joy to be had, but they are very few and far between amid oceans of pain.
Detachment takes place over the period of a single month at a “high needs” school where test scores have gotten so bad they’re dragging down real estate prices. Principal Deardon (blisteringly portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden) has been unfairly scapegoated and is on her way to “early retirement.” Burned out she may be. She’s not looking forward to spending any more time in her own home since her marriage is a disaster.
In fact, a lot of the teachers seem to be at the school to hide from their own demons as the geometry teacher Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks has never been more ethereal), confesses to the new substitute Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody).
Henry comes recommended as the best substitute teacher around, something he is the first to admit is a dubious distinction. We quickly learn that he prefers substitute gigs so that he can avoid forming any attachments to either his students or colleagues since he has enough on his hands with his only living relative slipping deeper into dementia and closer to death.
On this latest assignment though, that begins to change. He bonds with a talented yet depressed student, Meredith, the beautiful Ms. Madison, and most importantly with Erica (a marvelous Sami Gayle, another young actress to watch out for), a teenage runaway and streetwalker who Henry takes in.
Adrien Brody as Henry is as revelatory here as he was in The Pianist where he took the Oscar; his Henry radiates sadness from within that leaks out in his eyes and in his walk, but he’s also strangely inspiring to those around him without ever recognizing his power until the end. As one character puts it during a meltdown with an apathetic student, “It’s easy to not give a damn. It takes courage and strength to care.” Detachment makes no bones about just how hard caring can be sometimes, but as Henry and the audience learn, it’s still better than the alternative.