Fetching up at a failing school in New York’s Queen district, substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) expects to bring his usual detachment to the temporary students and colleagues that cross his path.
Instead he becomes involved, on different levels, with another teacher, a teen prostitute and a student. All three women have an impact on his deliberately solitary, isolated existence leading Henry to re-evaluate his priorities and the direction he is taking through his personal and professional life.
An odd film that is part angry autobiographical rant – debut screenwriter Carl Lund is an ex-teacher – and part message movie, Detachment attempts to be something more than the standard “inspiring-teacher-in-bad-school” that infest this narrow genre.
Director Tony (American History X) indulges himself with an attempt at multi-layering that takes the threads of five plotlines and then fails to stitch them together. Thus brassy hooker Erica (Sami Gayle), obsessive student Meredith (Betty Kaye, the director’s daughter) and fellow pedagogue Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks) emerge as the only people with whom Henry can connect.
However Detachment does boast arguably Brody’s finest hour since his Oscar-winning turn in The Pianist 10 years ago. His is a performance soaked in emotion, guilt, intensity and secrets.
And there are rather pointless appearances by Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan and Lucy Liu, none of whom are given anything remotely interesting to do. They’re there and only serve to provide a distraction.
A humourless, downbeat, unapologetically bleak tale, Detachment is also a courageous, off-kilter portrait of the Stateside urban schooling system that loses its way in Brody’s all-too-evident martyrdom. Lund’s criticism is implicit throughout; Kaye delivers it like a sledgehammer.