Detachment, a new provocative and emotionally raw drama starring Academy-Award winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist, 2002), takes an honest but unpopular look at a failing public school.
Directed by Tony Kaye, the acclaimed director of the neo-Nazi drama American History X, Detachment explores the psychological and emotional difficulties that many students face as they navigate their teen years without reliable parental guidance. It also authentically exhibits both the hardships of emotional damage and the healing power of human relationships.
In one of his best performances since The Pianist, Adrien Brody plays Henry Barthes, a compassionate substitute teacher in a failing New York public school. While on the surface Henry seems calm and hopeful, in reality he is constantly suppressing issues from his own troubled childhood.
His facade falls when a young, aspiring photographer named Meredith (Betty Kaye) walks up to Henry and hands him a drawing. Henry responds: "A faceless man in an empty room, is that how you see me, Meredith?"
The interaction forces Henry to face his inability to connect emotionally and his lack of commitment. But interaction with Meredith and Erica (Sami Gayle) -- a runaway teen prostitute in need of help -- provide him with opportunities to choose compassion and to invest in relationships while he helping them make sense of their own relational wounds.
The film is painfully realistic. It is rated PG-13 for scenes including profanity, violence, drug use, promiscuity and disturbing physical distress. Critics have down-thumbed the film for its cynical views of public schools, harsh language, and violence at the hands of parental indifference.
Brody managed to bring his character to life in a trustworthy and powerful way. He joined a solid cast including Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks, and Lucy Liu. But despite powerful acting by Brody and 16-year-old Gayle, screenwriter Carl Lund struggled to fully develop some of the characters. Instead of creating well-rounded characters with relatable stories, the audience is left to grapple with fragmented dialogue and conversation without context.
Detachment gives a realistic reflection of how schools serving poorer communities with fewer resources fall behind private institutions. More importantly, it highlights the need for meaningful human relationships that help students develop the moral and mental capabilities necessary for thriving in and beyond the classroom.