A little fun fact for you: I originally intended to view this film last year. However, I ended up deciding to go with something a little less depressing at the last minute, and it fell through the cracks. When drafting potential films to watch this year, Detachment came to mind immediately, so I felt it appropriate to finally view it to kick off this year’s “festivities.”
T’was a good idea to not watch this last year. My goodness, what a downer.
“A chronicle of three weeks in the lives of several high school teachers, administrators and students through the eyes of substitute teacher, Henry Barthes. Henry roams from school to school, imparting modes of knowledge, but never staying long enough to form any semblance of sentient attachment.”
My opening paragraphs may have come off as a tad snarky, but let me assure those reading that I don’t mind if a film is sad whatsoever. Rather, I generally prefer if the mood of a film is more quiet, self-reflective, and bleak. Detachment provides an, at times, wretchedly moody piece about the state of the educational system and the problems that swirl within for those involved. Complete with dark pasts and haunting emotional instability.
Let’s address that first. This isn’t exactly an uplifting experience. Just from the promotional material and synopsis alone, one can tell that this is targeting the heart with full ferocity. Thus, it’s easy to assume that said ferocity could go overboard and end up overindulging in its own misery. Unfortunately, the film does this… minimally.
More within the earlier portions of its runtime, there are clear scenes dedicated to the brutality of the position of teaching. Kids being really unruly, parents being horribly entitled—such things leading to the major character remarking about how fucked the world is. These are some of the more cartoon-y moments of an otherwise depressingly realistic scenario. Though this is absolutely not a comedy, I actually laughed once at the absurdly antagonistic writing early on.
Something I do quite like with the film is its more tender moments. This man at the center of this story is blocked off and “hollow,” in his own words, yet his kindness is genuine. The small interactions he has with people—strangers or coworkers—are intriguing just by virtue of his desire to connect, yet cannot. To help when he believes he shouldn’t, or that he doesn’t deserve to be in a place of support. His relationship with a runaway provided some of the more heartwarming sections as respite from the darkness.
Camerawork is also an intriguing point of emphasis in the film. Not quite “found footage,” it’s a little lenient with the framing of shots, moving around at will almost chaotically. Cuts are plentiful in some spots depending on the situation, usually signifying some tension or uneasiness within the minds of the characters. And close shots make up what seems like a majority of scenes. Veering into the eyes of these people, ravaged by the harshness of life. Uncanny at times to imagine what they may see.
To circle back to the writing, I find that the performances of characters tend to fluctuate with the quality of the words spoken. Adrien Brody and James Caan, specifically, are fantastic the entire way through. The latter has such a charisma to their character that it was easy to believe that they’ve been acting forever. Both manage to take great advantage of their screentime, filling their characters with the attitudes necessary to accentuate the messages of the film.
The younger actors, however, aren’t always great. Sami Gayle as the runaway, Erica, is strong occasionally, but inconsistent. Again, it depends on the writing. Her dialogue ranges from heart-wrenchingly tragic and too stilted in its intentions. Flipping the switch between human being and catalyst for emotional connection. Betty Kaye (the director’s daughter) as Meredith is similarly back and forth. When the writing crosses the line between genuinely emotional and borderline manipulative, the actors emulate accordingly.
Fragments of Detachment highlight that poignant essence of beautiful tragedy that really appeals to me in media. Alas, they’re but fragments, with the whole not quite as robust as the more dazzling displays of quality. I certainly won’t forget it, along with the wholesome relationship between Bordy’s and Gayle’s characters. From a technical standpoint, the film is marvelous, as well. Inconsistency is the harm that brings it down, even if it’s still recommendable for those warmer bits by themselves.
Final Score: 7/10
The rating for all other films can be found at Letterboxd.
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