Rarely does a film attack nuanced and complex institutions like America’s educatory system with such brazen, cursory detail and still get away with it. But with justified vitriol, attitude and a certain amount of first-hand authority, director Tony Kaye together with former public school teacher-now-writer Carl Lund find the right kind of brittle, agitated tone to carry through their sweeping messages and moral outrage.
Kaye, whose last widely-released work was the 2006 abortion documentary Lake of Fire, presents his argument this time around not merely through a convincing display of facts. Detachment instead stabs at an ill-defined place somewhere between case study and crucible, mashing up complementary elements of (presumably) first hand accounts, stories heard through the grapevine, and highly sensationalised fictions in order to create a scatterbrained launching pad for discussion, interrogation and reflection.
This obtuse handling of artifice is immediately realised from the opening, as slices of talking-head interviews with real teachers, mostly focusing on those who fell into the profession as opposed to worked towards it, are intercut with the fictional interjections of Adrien Brody, who may or may not be in character as English substitute teacher Henry Barthes (a possible nod to French social theorist Roland Barthes?). Both an affront to the fourth-wall and harbouring little narrative connectivity to the rest of the plot — other than to get the analytical ball rolling: why do we teach? — it’s the first highfalutin tic in a film full of stylised asides and visual experimentations: hand-drawn chalkboard animations, flashy montage cuts and hallucinatory flashbacks filmed in Super 8 weave in and out of Henry’s reality, mirroring the fractured and volatile state of his existence.
A belaboured point is made that his profession as a substitute teacher is in fact a manifestation of the emotional conflict that defines him, with his innate desire to educate and heal being sullied by an unwillingness to form any meaningful long-term connections — something which is eventually challenged by a chance meeting with an underage prostitute (Sami Gayle), who inadvertently talks Henry into a surrogate father/daughter relationship. Lund also attempts, through Camus-quoting epigraph, to position Henry as a character cursed with inconsolable pain and boundless empathy, and consequently he drifts throughout the film like a lost messiah.
Charting a three week teaching assignment at a bottom-of-the-barrel public school in Queens, home to the district’s ineducable cast-offs, Detachment pits Henry against a hellish gauntlet of violent students, inattentive classrooms, suicidal outcasts, and hilariously unhinged co-workers, each demanding of a particular subset of Henry’s skills (of which he doles out with almost superhuman patience). Though when the working day is done, his personal life is revealed to be just as strenuous, with episodic visits to an ailing grandfather becoming a major source of backstory for his embattled psychology.
Henry Barthes is a testament to the high-strung duties of the profession; his perpetually sorrowful brow is but a small sign of the overwhelming tax on humanity for which the daily grind demands. Brody, as always, plays the part with a physical vulnerability and personable softness. When battling profanity-spitting bullies with charismatic cool in his disobedient classroom, it’s easy to see why students such as the lonely Meredith (Betty Kaye) would find him so appealing.
The curiously one-dimensional, worst-case-scenario depiction of the school, however, as well as the constant threat of violence, death and suicide bubbling away in the undercurrent, smacks of dramatic exaggeration, and it will undoubtedly be up to the viewer to decide whether Kaye errs too much on the side of hyperbole to get his point across. However, in a world where the life and death consequences of abused and neglected teenagers are all-too-often, tragically literal, Kaye’s uncompromising approach feels all the more due.
Not simply relegated to the issues that arise within classroom walls, Detachment also takes more general shots at generational malaise, parental failings, bureaucracy, bullying and the grand notion of what it means to advance as a human species, often leaving many more troubling questions than answers in its wake. Culpability and responsibility are tantamount concerns, and neither writer nor director is shy to place blame on profit-driven advisory boards, or the occasional buck-passing parent; one memorable sequence involving a fruitless Parent-Teacher Night sees exactly zero parental attendees throughout the whole school, which seems like a comically unrealistic exaggeration, even for this film. But whether you lament its sometimes reductive nature, it’s hard to fault the anger from which it stems, nor the sheer ambition upon which it’s built.
Though many may take issue with the way Kaye strikes viscerally and unrelentingly — his vision of a filth-ridden, after hours Brooklyn may bring to mind Travis Bickle’s repulsive vision of ‘70s Manhattan, and you start to wonder if Henry will, too, wish for a Biblical flood to wash it all away — Detachment feels like the result of years of righteous, pent-up anguish, spilling from the gut.