Both fascinating and frustrating, the school-is-hell art-house drama Detachment is alternately shrill and sharp to an almost fatal degree. Written by Carl Lund and directed by British artist and occasional filmmaker (it’s only his second feature, the first being American History X way back in 1998), it is a potent, provocative, and sometimes effective condemnation of the public education system.
Adrien Brody gives one of his best performances in recent years as Henry Barthes, a gifted substitute teacher under emotional lockdown, haunted by his mother’s suicide during his childhood and struggling to care for a demented and dying grandfather (Louis Zorich). His latest posting is at one of the bombed-out inner city high schools so often found in movies like Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, and Stand and Deliver, only without the hope for a better tomorrow.
Surrounded by burn-out cases, Henry is alone in the blackboard wilderness. Beleagured principal Carol Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden) is marked for scapegoating and firing by superiors who are more interested in property values than academics, and knows her time is short. The school’s guidance counselor (Lucy Liu) and exasperated teachers (memorably played by Blythe Danner, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, and Tim Blake Nelson) are all on the edge of nervous breakdowns.
A good portion of him simply wants to escape it all; nevertheless, Henry does his best to mentor an abused overweight student (Betty Kaye, the director’s daughter), and impulsively shelters a teen prostitute (Sami Gayle). he’s a compassionate and selfless man, but also one who pulls away once the demands placed on him become too great.
A notoriously difficult button-pusher and bomb-thrower, Kaye embellishes the movie with interesting but ultimately unnecessary gimmicks — bits of animation, interview footage, and grainy flashbacks — that scream “art” with a capital “A”. Story-wise, he and Lund tend to pile on the despair and world weariness, and nearly suffocate the movie in the process. However, their comments on the frightening possibility of a generation lost to ennui and underserved sense of entitlement are sobering.