Tony Kaye’s Detachment: A Miserable Education

Get ready to wallow; the director of American History X turns his sights on a high school where nobody is having any fun at all.

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Tony Kaye

Everything that happens at the fictional high school in Tony Kaye’s Detachment could conceivably happen at a high school anywhere in America on any given day: A boy beats a helpless animal to death while classmates look on, a girl writes an essay about wanting to die, various students challenge teachers in ways that would make 99 percent of the population turn tail and run for the door. The performances — from that of star Adrien Brody to supporting work delivered in small poisonous doses by James Caan, Marcia Gay Harden and Blythe Danner — are almost uniformly sharp and forceful.

Yet I didn’t believe a word of the film and found myself feeling nothing but (I’m sure this wasn’t Kaye’s point) detachment. The movie seems so excited about rubbing the audience’s face in misery as to feel perverted. It comes at you like an exhibitionist with his pants around his ankles, desperate to be seen and to sully.

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Brody plays perennial substitute teacher Henry, who has a gift for calming enraged students and stirring interest in the dazed kids at the back of the classroom. But he bounces from school to school on long-term assignments because he’s not willing to commit. As Kaye reveals titillating tidbits about Henry’s mother, dead from suicide, and his grandfather, languishing in a nursing home, it becomes evident that Henry uses each school in which he teaches as a stage— the one place where he can play the part of the man he wants to be, cool as a cucumber, detached, undamaged. Which of course, he’s not. In case there’s any chance this hasn’t become clear to you, Kaye (his first feature film to get any kind of theatrical release since American History X) has another teacher, played self consciously by Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, spell it out: “You know subbing is a dodge,” she tells Henry over drinks, flirtatious, but also eager to show off how wise she is to human nature. “What happened to you?”

There’s a lot going on stylistically. Talking head interviews with the teachers about their jobs are dropped in without explanation, suggesting there’s an Office-style documentary crew hanging around. Occasionally the writing on a chalkboard will turn into an animated graphic, like a curtain dropped between acts. Half Nelson had a similar air of portentousness about it but overcame that through the force of Ryan Gosling’s performance and the surprise of that teacher’s hidden problems. But Kaye and screenwriter Carl Lund go seriously astray with a subplot about a very young prostitute who hangs around Henry’s neighborhood. He first encounters Erica (Sami Gayle) while on the way home from an unhappy trip to the nursing home. She looks 13. She makes a sales pitch. He speechifies: “Little kid I don’t know how old you were when it all went wrong, but this isn’t the [expletive] answer, go figure it out because you’re going to get really old really quick.”

Every conversation between these two continues on this false, overwrought note, with Henry on a kind of Dr. Phil-like attack to scare this girl straight. There’s nothing wrong with the way Gayle, a gamine type with the pixie haircut and Jennifer Jason Leigh eyes, plays her, but the character seems produced from thin air purely to admire and become devoted to Henry. The same is true of one of his higher achieving (but still troubled) students, who throws her pillowy, misunderstood self into his arms. When she is gently rebuffed, she goes home and bakes a vast batch of cupcakes to give away to her classmates. They’re all frosted with vanilla icing adorned with smiley faces, except for one with chocolate frosting and a frown. Uh oh. Get the gurney. Scenes like this call to mind the most awesomely dramatic afterschool specials.

But even an afterschool special knew how to mete out its punishments to the viewer. Detachment is an angst overdose. I know some people felt this way about Precious, that it was all such an unbearable wallow that there was no room to feel anything but misery. I just focused on the central crisis of Precious the character and let her pull me through. But everywhere you turn in Detachment, someone is trying to make you feel like hell. The cat killer (Lucian Maisel) is caught and brought to justice in the principal’s (Harden) office, blood on his hands. More speechifying is unleashed, this time about the connection between violence against animals and later, even more unspeakable acts. Someone asks him how he feels. “I feel trapped,” he answers, delivering this unlikely instant insight with a straight face. “Like the cat.” Dude, I totally get it; me too.

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