"And here I was expecting a light-hearted romantic comedy..."
Detachment is director Tony Kaye's most substantial feature since the brilliant American History X, and following the harsh, disquieted nature of his previous work, Kaye has remained loyal to his own brand of film making, in what proves to be a bleak, uncomfortable feature film. And here I was expecting a light-hearted romantic comedy.
We follow a short period of time in the life of substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), a lonely man struggling to combine his work with his personal life. Teaching is no easy task, particularly when the pupils are as obnoxious and confrontational as those in his class. Despite forming a bond with fellow colleague Sarah (Christina Hendricks), and melancholic pupil Meredith (Betty Kaye), it's his relationships outside of school which take precedence.
Henry's grandfather (Louis Zorich) is terminally ill, and Henry finds himself spending a lot of time at the hospice to be by his side. In the meantime, he takes in a teenage prostitute Erica (Sami Gayle) from the streets, giving her a second chance in life, as well as shelter and food. As a mere substitute teacher Henry spends much of his drifting in and out of different schools, yet despite the short period of time he spends at this particular establishment, it's bound to be a time he won't ever forget, and not for the right reasons...
If there is one thing that can be said about Detachment, it’s that it's rich in bleakness and desolation. In many respects, it's arguably overly depressing as there are very few positives to be taken away from this feature. As a result it does come across as feeling somewhat melodramatic. We must remember that these people are teachers, not fire-fighters. Yet Kaye depicts the lives of some of the teaching staff, consisting of Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Lucy Liu and Tim Blake Nelson, as though they are dying inside, as if the world is coming to an abrupt end. I don't wish to be disrespectful to teachers, I do admire their work, but this does seem over-the-top.
Then again, not all films need to carry a sentiment of hope, or positivity. This isn't children's television, and sometimes life can be bleak, so when looking at Detachment from that angle, it's a brilliant piece of film making, as the harsh themes explored are done so incredibly well. Kaye has masterfully brought together a variety of tragic characters with their own mournful stories, almost uniting a selection of lonely people through tragedy.
Despite being a film that bears little exuberance and joyfulness, Kaye implements some quite quirky elements to the film, which although appearing as bitter-sweet, provide some light-relief to the audience, such as the whimsical chalk drawing animations that interlace the scenes throughout the film, seeming somewhat ironic as the cartoon elements go against the dark, maturity of the picture.
As for the performances, if you are need of an actor to display a sincere degree of sorrow, then look no further than Brody, who just has this sombre look in his eyes. He completely captures the overall sentiment of austerity, as he appears as someone who has lived through so much pain. Perhaps appearing in The Pianist took its toll on him.
Detachment is a poignant and affecting feature, and although coming an incredible 14 years after American History X, it's proved to be worth the wait. Funnily enough this isn't the first film this year to delve into the arduous life of a substitute teacher either, following the wonderful Monsieur Lazhar. However, that carried an underlying sense that things will be okay, whereas Detachment, on the other hand, just leaves you thinking... Sod it. What's the point, eh?