2 and 1/2 out of 5 cookies
Detachment is not the sort of movie I’d normally take time to write about, number one because I’ve never heard of it until it showed up on Netflix, and number two, because it’s really not that special which explains number one.
And yet, the movie’s got quite the cast: Adrien Brody, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner. It’s also got some pretty big ideas. Ideas that are so big they actually ruin the movie.
Detachment concerns what is presented to the audience as an “inner city high school” – yeah, think Dangerous Minds, The Substitute, and a shitload other movies of the sort. The problem with this inner city high school, however, is its distinct lack of color. The majority of this inner city school, somehow, is white, which means that all the big ideas that the movie goes on to tackle are automatically bogged down by the distinct lack of a racial conversation that is present in reality when talking about these issues. As cheesy as Dangerous Minds plays these days, at least it had the honesty to engage race head on.
A lot of you are black. As you can see I’m white. This is interesting.
Brody is a substitute teacher who, as the formula dictates, engages the kids in such a way that, despite all the grimness presented throughout the movie – cocksucking on public transportation, dying old men, rape victims, – by the end he is their captain-my-captain a’la Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society which is really what this movie should have gone for. I mean, there’s not even a single gang present at this “inner city” high school. If you can’t get a black cast you can still make a grim movie about high school – I mean, white kids have problems too. Not everything has to focus on the “inner city”. Aren’t Columbine, Jonesboro, Newtown a whole different set of problems with our educational system, and perhaps a symptom of white privilege as much as certain problems specific to the urban education environment are rooted in black under-privilege?
And yet for all this complaining on my part, I am writing about the movie because there are portions of it that are outstanding. Individual scenes such as Lucy Liu’s verbal assault on a student that is at once sort of shocking and yet so full of a particular brand of truth that so many young people need to hear. There’s also some outstanding acting by some young people who I hope we begin to see more from such as Sami Gayle, who despite having to deal with some atrocious writing and characterization that goes back to the root of the problem with this movie, delivers a great performance. When her heartbreaking exit from the movie comes about, her anguished cries and screams really hit a nerve. (Oddly enough, she also looks like a young Liza Minelli so if there’s ever a biopic…) A young actress that IMDB tells me is named Betty Kaye also deserves honorable mention as an artistic student who develops a crush on her teacher.
The movie is political in the worst way. Informed by liberal sensibilities it inserts a scene about midway through the movie where George W’s No Child Left Behind gets introduced to the teachers. They all rebel telling the administrator (Oddly, one of the few black actors in the movie getting to act out the part of straw-man Republican) how awful it is – and yet, everything that has proceeded this scene has shown the school to be an abysmal failure. So why not try something new? The administrator even gives a point by point sketch of how neighborhood property values affect the monies available to the school, and how the quality of a school is directly proportional to rising and falling values. But this is never rebutted except to have character literally say that the straw-man Republican administrator cares more about property values than kids.
For presenting such strong ideas the movie resolves them too simply, when in fact, in the hands of a better writer, they should have left them unresolved. You know, let the viewer decide.
But a movie like this doesn’t want to let the viewer decide. For all the high points this movie offers, I’m left wondering how the funding partners to the project didn’t ask for a re-write of some of these scenes. Hell, how about some of the actors who seem like smart enough people that they should have realized that, as written, the movie often gets too carried away with the predestined outcomes to its arguments instead of realizing that sometimes there is no need for a resolution.
Fortunately for us, the movie illustrates its own problem by biting itself in the ass. In one scene Brody lectures the class that by being surrounded by media, by having shit pouring into our eyeballs and ears at a constant rate, this keeps us so busy we never actually get to create anything ourselves. He refers to it as society “assimilating us ubiquitously”. It’s a great moment in the film – for about a minute – at which point he begins to heavy-handedly refer to this media saturation as the powers that be dumbing us down, and making us buy shit. Its a “marketing holocaust” he screams. It’s actually a powerful argument until he gets so impassioned that images of Hitler and the Third Reich begin to flash on the screen. If the internet has taught us anything it is that using Hitler as a metaphor usually has the opposite effect than what was intended and takes the wind out of your sails. The irony being of course, that the movie is shoving down our throats the fact that if we disagree with its conclusions we must agree with Hitler. Thus in its arguments against “ubiquitous assimilation” it is expecting us not to think for ourselves, but to “ubiquitously assimilate” its preordained conclusions.
This movie, in parts, achieves greatness – and yet, as a whole it seems to me to be a huge missed opportunity that a few re-writes, a fresh set of eyes may have brought up to snuff. It could have used someone removing the hammer from the writer’s and director’s hand that they insist on hitting the audience over the head with again and again and again.
Detachment is currently streaming on Netflix and played several festivals, including Tribeca.