Detachment Review: Rewarding, Hard-Hitting School Drama

Tony Kaye’s penchant for piercing filmmaking hasn’t gone anywhere.

Shaun Munro

Contributor

Rating: ★★★½☆

It’s a story we’ve seen dozens of times before in the likes of Dangerous Minds, Coach Carter and The Class – of a teacher arriving at a downtrodden inner-city school with the hope of turning the kids’ lives around – but prickly director Tony Kaye (American History X) manages to breathe new life into it with his refreshingly hard-edged, unsentimental approach.

An opening montage, mixing apparent verite footage with the musings of protagonist Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), asks a simple question – why do people teach? Through a school-based drama that doubles as an urban nightmare, Kaye considers this question, and also musters up plenty of his own to boot.

Brody is the film’s Michelle Pfeiffer, the respected substitute teacher looking to save an ailing school at the behest of Principal Carol Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden), whose head rests on the chopping block. From the outset, Henry has to deal with angry, troublesome students, but manages to keep an impossibly cool head, soaking up the abuse rather than having the kids direct it towards each other.

Of course, Henry has his own problems, chiefly a dementia-afflicted grandfather, and he seems unable to maintain the same calm composure in his personal life. It appears as though the inevitable boiling over of his professional life might be very well projecting itself at home. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with, Henry then takes pity upon a young prostitute, Erica (Sami Gayle), allowing her to live with him while she sorts her life out.

Detachment is as unflinching as any Tony Kaye film – feature or documentary – with scenes of oral sex on a bus, the horrors of nursing homes, rape, animal abuse, and even suicide. It certainly doesn’t aim to be subtle, with Henry’s ranting about what he perceives as a lewd “cultural holocaust”, but it’s nevertheless propelled forward with the righteous rage and stylistic audaciousness of a good Spike Lee joint. Henry’s raving might seem rather inappropriate for a school teacher, and his course-correction of Erica’s life is definitely too easy, but Brody’s central performance is so good you’ll probably be prepared to just go with it.

First-time writer Carl Lund’s toothed screenplay burns with a hungry passion, touching on the grand irony of teaching, that those with life experience trying to impart it into the young are doomed to fail when the young don’t want to listen. Lund also attacks the overt political correctness permeating school systems the world over, inhibiting rather than helping beleaguered students.

The resolution, of course, is that teachers can only do so much; it is up to parents first and foremost, leavened by a hard-hitting climax. The real food for thought comes with the suggestion for change, that perhaps teachers – or the best of them – can find a way to better relate classroom learning to the experience of being a youngster.

Adrien Brody is one of the most dependable, malleable actors around, and Kaye brings out the best in him. Strangely, while Kaye sports an absolutely killer supporting cast, including Lucy Liu, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Blythe Danner, William Petersen and Bryan Cranston, the majority of them appear for what would barely qualify as even a cameo, making it seem rather pointless, even extravagant for an indie.

Though the premise has been well-mined, Kaye and Lund find plenty of room for their irreverent, brutally honest indictment of the American education system. Some of the lyrical interludes might seem a little too flowery, but Tony Kaye’s penchant for piercing filmmaking hasn’t gone anywhere.

Detachment is on limited release from Friday.