97 min., rated R.
So unflinchingly powerful and directed with a fierce hand, 1998's "American History X" was the first and last narrative film from artist-turned-filmmaker Tony Kaye. Fourteen years have passed and he makes his long-awaited return with "Detachment," a stark, thoughtful, scorchingly incisive film. (The credits call it "A Tony Kaye Talkie.") Taking the story of "Detachment" at face value would make it sound like 1955's "Blackboard Jungle," 1988's "Stand and Deliver," and 1995's "Dangerous Minds" tossed together. But rarely has an education-conscious story been approached on film with such bleak profundity and intense ferocity as it is here.
"We're all the same. We all feel pain. We all have chaos in our lives." Those are the profoundly no-bull words spoken by a troubled soul that's seen it all. Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), a substitute teacher, takes a four-week stint at an inner-city public high school that's crumbling. Every school day is like going into the trenches, but he tries to avoid all emotional connection with his students and colleagues. The students are all troubled kids, talking back and having no ambition; the boys are bullies and the girls dress like two-cent hookers. At times, the school feels more like a halfway house than a place for learning. But despite the staff being thrown under the bus by public-school officials and their property values, Henry does what he's good at—teaching—and tries getting the kids caught up to grade-level. Meanwhile, he frequently visits his senile grandfather (Louis Zorich) in a nursing home ("When you stop coming Henry, I'll die," he tells Henry). One night, Henry takes pity on a wayward, homeless teen prostitute, Erica (Sami Gayle), roaming around his block, so he gives her a place to sleep and food to eat. It's there that Henry's promise for external detachment fails.
Ex-teacher Carl Lund's first screenplay might seem shapeless at first, but then once it settles into a groove, "Detachment" is not solely about the public education system but the people inside one school that actually want to make a difference. Interspersed with color-filtered memories and animated graphics on a chalkboard, Kaye's film is stunningly visual at the same time it's wrought with searing emotion. He opens it with talking-head interviews of teachers describing their experiences and scatters faux-confessional interludes with Henry throughout.
Brody's socko performance mustn't be ignored, and that's not hyperbole. His Henry is all sorts of tragic and gloomy, and yet has his head on straight. Self-proclaiming to not possess a sense of humor, he's a firm but compassionate realist. Henry even admits to not have all the answers. Closed-off as a child, Henry's mother, Patricia, overdosed on pills and died when Henry was only seven, which seems to give him an inner strength and independence. The calm and cool discretion Henry uses in response to an angry black student, who repeatedly cusses, throws the teacher's bag at the wall, and stands in his face, is chilling. He also steps in and intensely handles the situation after a brace-faced twerp hammers a cat to death. Except in the case of Meredith and one other student, we don't fully get to see how Mr. Barthes makes his classroom miss him by the time he announces his transfer, but it's clear to us that his demeanor would be impressionable to any pupil.
Surrounding the phenomenal Brody at the head of the class, Kaye's top-drawer supporting cast helps flesh out even the most peripheral character. Christina Hendricks is earnestly sweet as the math teacher, Ms. Madison, that takes verbal beatings from her students' parents; Marcia Gay Harden does strong work as the hard-as-nails principal who faces the threat of being pensioned off at year's end; and Lucy Liu, as the burnt-out guidance counselor, gets one great scene where she finally lashes out at an ungrateful student. Also, James Caan is amusingly off-the-wall as a medicated teacher and Tim Blake Nelson has a few sad moments as a teacher who's invisible to both his classroom and household. In other supporting roles, Blythe Danner, William Petersen, and Bryan Cranston are underused. Leaving the most haunting marks are of a younger, less trained set: Betty Kaye (the director's daughter) is astonishingly natural and rawly heartbreaking as Meredith, an overweight, tortured outcast with a talent for art, and Gayle, resembling Anna Chlumsky from her "My Girl" years, effectively eschews hooker clichés with her character of Erica.
Honest enough to not shy away from tough social issues and nonjudgmental to make us feel for most, if not all, of its characters, the film never loses sight of Henry nor does it treat the characters' problems with glib, reductive solutions. "Detachment" is anything but detached. It's a wrenching experience that needs to be felt by high school students, parents, teachers, and everyone else.
Grade: A -
Grade: A -