With education reform being the hot-button topic it is nowadays, British maverick Tony Kaye throws fuel into the fire with this bleak portrait of the shortcomings of American public education, as seen through the eyes of a substitute teacher. Not just any substitute teacher, though. Henry Barthes, as portrayed by Adrien Brody, is a "hollow man" in the clearest sense of the word: a teacher who never talks down to his students and strives to make them aware of the world around them and the traps it has in store, he is however unwilling to commit to anything - whether in his professional status (he is a substitute by choice) or in his personal life (he lives alone in a blank, empty flat). But while his new month-long assignment to a decaying problem-area school highlights his reasons for detachment and disillusionment, life conspires against him to force decisions. First by throwing on his path teenage prostitute Erica (Sami Gayle), whom he takes in out of kindness after realising she's been raped, but also by allowing one of his new temporary colleagues, maths teacher Sarah (Christina Hendricks), close to him.

     What looks on paper to be a relatively straight-forward social melodrama, however, becomes something entirely different in the hands of Mr. Kaye, who is also cinematographer on the project: he fragments it in a thousand shards, disassembling the narrative structure to reassemble it around a through-line of after-the-fact, direct-to-camera interviews by Barthes and chalk-and-blackboard animations (by Rebecca Foster) representing the phantoms he releases into the composition books he carries with him everywhere. Mixing film stocks and camera techniques, moving from the grotesque to the sublime, Mr. Kaye manages to achieve a restless yet melancholy energy that propels the film and somehow glues the whole together emotionally if not always coherently.

     Just as he had allowed Edward Norton a career-making performance in the earlier American History X, so does the director do the same here for Mr. Brody, in a superbly modulated but quietly heartbreaking central performance; it's more the shame that Detachment falls prey to that indie-film plague of casting name actors in quasi-cameos as the faculty, though the assembled cast (among which Marcia Gay Harden, Blythe Danner, James Caan and Lucy Liu) manages to make their characters exist in the mere couple of scenes they have, serving mainly as unwitting examples of what public education shouldn't be. The bulk of the weight is strongly borne by Mr. Brody, Ms. Gayle and the director's daughter Betty Kaye (as an overweight student who develops an interest in Barthes).

     Ultimately, though, Detachment finds itself walking the same thin line Henry Barthes does between not caring enough and caring too much, pointing out the state of modern education but unable to offer an alternative. What it does do, and brilliantly, is make us look in the eye a few unpleasant and inconvenient truths, and for that alone it's well worth the look.

Cast: Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks, William Petersen, Bryan Cranston, Tim Blake Nelson, Betty Kaye, Sami Gayle, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, James Caan

Director and cinematographer (colour): Tony Kaye
Screenplay: Carl Lund
Music: The Newton Brothers, Taylor Eigsti
Designer: Jade Healy
Costumes: Wendy Schecter
Editors: Barry Alexander Brown, Geoffrey Richman
Animation: Rebecca Foster
Producers: Greg Shapiro, Mr. Lund, Bingo Gubelmann, Chris Papavasiliou, Austin Stark, Benji Kohn (Paper Street Films in association with Kingsgate Films and Appian Way Productions)
USA, 2011, 98 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, November 11th 2012


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