By Scott Mendelson
HollywoodNews.com: Most of the ideas in Tony Kaye’s Detachment are not revolutionary, especially not to anyone who has followed the last thirty years of debate regarding the public education system in America (Jonathan Kozel’s many works of nonfiction come to mind). And while the story is told in a style that sometimes veers in art-house cliche (sepia-toned flashbacks, first-person testimonial to an unseen listener, hand-held claustrophobia, etc), the picture is in the end devastating via its almost objective presentation of the issues at hand. Sure, Kaye is saying, we know that public schools are underfunded, understaffed, and stuck with various federal mandates and (worst of all, argues Kaye) a deluge of unmotivated students whose parents only take an interest when it comes to rebutting disciplinary measures. But told through the eyes of a substitute teacher who is far more caring than he wants to be, the picture wonders why we’re so accepting a system that doesn’t seem to be all that successful for any number of American youths.
The plot is pretty simple: Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is starting an extended gig as a substitute teacher in an unnamed public high school. Through his eyes we see the frustration, bitterness, cynicism, and acceptance of his full-time colleagues (played by, among others, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Christina Hendricks, and William Peterson, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, and Marcia Gay Harden). The primary blame is placed at the feet of seemingly disinterested parents, although programs like No Child Left Behind with its unfunded mandates and reliance on arbitrary test scores as the be all/end all judgement for struggling schools, takes their licks too. Yes Mr. Barnes does provide token inspiration to his kids, almost despite himself, but it’s merely because they take his blunt cynicism as a sign of respect. This is, at its core, a character study of someone who has long since given up being the great inspiration to young minds, as well as a brutal deconstruction of that entire concept.
Much of what happens borders on cliche, especially when the film leaves the classroom. He struggles with a student who mistakes simple empathy for paternal/romantic affection, bonds with a female member of the faculty, and deals with a dementia-stricken grandparent (Louis Zorich). But the film works because of the sheer understated power of its frank storytelling. That last subplot plays out [...]