Teacher movies are so easily parodied and yet so regularly deliver. Usually, some great teacher comes into the urban wasteland and teaches these kids how it really is. Wakes up their minds and they all go to college or whatever. Again, they’re typical, formulaic, but solid. That’s the thing about formula. Some movies break the formula or go in slightly different directions. Detachment (2012) breaks the formula of the movie while keeping the same message alive.
Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a substitute teacher. In fact, he’s the best substitute in town. This time he’s come to the school for a one month engagement. It’s a troubled school. Principle Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden) is on the way out because she isn’t doing more with less. The teachers (James Caan, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen, and Christina Hendricks) are basically going through different kinds of despair because of how little support they’re getting for their work. Barthes’ grandfather (Louis Zorich) is in assisted living and is essentially senile. Barthes meets a child prostitute, Erica (Sami Gayle), and he lets her stay at his apartment and takes her to the hospital to be checked out for diseases. And he’s great in the classroom. He wins them over, not with any grand speeches, but just by being himself. But he keeps it all at arms length, or he thinks he has.
Tony Kaye, who also directed American History X (1998), makes something special yet again. So much of it has to do with the cast and the script, but he also should get his due. There are a lot of flashes, both to the past and to his imagination, that are clear enough to convey their message, but quick enough that I can stay in the moment and not lose the emotion of the scene. When most movies are going crystal-clear, this one stays gritty.
Why is the script (by Carl Lund) so great? I’m not sure. But there are so many different elements involved that just worked for me, so I’m inclined to call that great. There’s a lot of funny moments in the movie and some incredibly sad moments as well. There’s voice-over narration, traditional dialogue, interview-style to-camera monologues, and what I can only describe as rants. I was willing to accept them and they drew me in completely.
There are going to be claims of preachiness. I hear this term used pretty frequently about film and television and I’m not sure I understand it. Everyone, even users of the term, probably accept that you can give a clear message without being preachy, but I doubt we could get consensus on one. My question, in regards to Detachment, is “what was the sermon?”
To my eye, I saw problems but not much in the way of solutions. I mean that as a defense rather than a criticism. I think the sermon the audience member sees has more to do with that individual than it does with the film. I saw a myriad of problems/solutions: find teachers who can control a class, get parents to get involved, keep public policy out of classrooms, and others. But I didn’t get the sense that anyone was reading of a white paper on education policy when they wrote this script. This was a conversation about urban schools and nothing more.
Performances in this movie were incredibly strong, starting with Adrien Brody. Brody is fantastic! You can tell I mean that because not only did I underline “fantastic,” but I also used an exclamation mark. I exclaimed that. Fan-flibbing-tastic. How? There’s raw emotion, there’s controlled rage, and infinite sadness in almost every scene. It’s an Oscar-winner, without a doubt.
His support is also strong-to-terrific. At first I wasn’t really sure about Ms. Gayle, but she won me over. Her weaknesses are better directed at how her character was written rather than the performance. All of the teachers were also quite good. Caan, as you would expect, was incredibly good. But, really, that must have been pretty easy to do given the fact that he was the funny, jaded teacher. I thought Lucy Liu did better than I would ever have expected of her. Backhanded compliment, I know.
This movie reminds me of Leon: The Professional (1994)–kids who are adopted by (fallen) angels. There are a number of movies of that kind. Man on Fire (2004) is another. I’m a total sucker for that. Here, Henry takes in Erica and treats her so well. They get along and everything looks great, but Henry’s determination to remain outside makes that difficult. It’s a kind of twist on the story. And it’s marvelous.
When things go quite badly at school, he blames himself and he thinks he’s hollow. But he isn’t really. What feels to him like emptiness is the opposite, he’s so full of feeling that he can’t get away from it. He’s taken in all the tragedy around him and bottled it deep inside. That’s not emptiness.
He’s exactly where he needs to be. When one thing goes wrong, he thinks he’s a failure. The teachers think they aren’t making a difference and see themselves as failures. I don’t see failure. When the class bully chills out and one student’s ability is recognized and encouraged, that’s success. It’s an amazing success. But all they see is missed opportunity. That’s understandable. Failure is easy to spot and modest successes are not.
There was an interesting concept that Barthes puts out in his tirade on modern society (re: degradation of women). What education does is help us defend our minds from the outside world. That resonated with me. I feel like what college did for me was give me a fortress for my mind to keep it safe and keep it mine. It’s my mind, I built it. I take a great deal of pleasure in that thought.
I do have one question about this movie. Who is he talking to? Barthes has a running monologue where he gives his balanced views on the school and teaching. I expected, like in American History X, some kind of wrapping up of this element, but it never came. It didn’t really need one.
Loved it. Go see it, you’ll be glad you did. It’s available on Amazon on demand, which is awesome. I spent $10 instead of $7, but I don’t mind.
Oh, and it isn’t rated, but if it were, it’d be R.