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Detachment

April 15, 2016

Detachment (2011)
Director: Tony Kaye
Actors: Adrien Brody, Sami Gayle, Betty Kaye

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Synopsis: Substitute teacher, Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), reaches the point of near implosion as he takes on a post at a particularly combustible inner-city school while also looking after a damaged young prostitute and dealing with his grandfather’s end-of-life care.

Review: Tony Kaye’s ragged, expressionistic aesthetic may have its detractors but it intuitively suits the wrought scenario of Detachment about a month in the life of a thirty-something supply teacher going through an emotional tempest in his professional and personal lives. After all, cinema isn’t just literature by visual proxy; so Kaye’s bold, visceral attempt to wring as much emotional juice from the material feels appropriate. The opening chalkboard animation sequence cut with (real life?) testimonies of why people get into teaching is an especially ingenious way of thematising the film’s main subject matter of state education and the lot of the teachers that prop it up.

For sure, once or twice Kaye’s inability to retain more measure in his editing and cinematography (it’s one of the most hyperactive films in recent memory) at times betrays a slight shallowness in the storytelling, but again, this isn’t an exercise in narrative sophistication – the piece’s sentiment is the main thing. And that sentiment comes across nicely in the array of lovely support turns from a seasoned range of character actors (particularly enjoyable is a sequence where James Caan, playing an eccentric older teacher, brilliantly defuses the hip-hop bravado of one his balshy young students.) Kaye’s aesthetic also outs the film’s underlying humane, lugubrious tone in a marvellous montage at the midpoint when he cuts between all the lonely evening routines of the school’s teachers: Tim Blake Nelson’s ‘put upon’, shambolic bod even gets a poignant sequence where he returns home to his soulless, catatonic wife and young son – speaking volumes for his own melancholic obsolescence.

Perhaps Detachment‘s strived-for angsty, existentialist edge (replete with Brody’s teacher being named Mr Barthes, and a lot of play on this notion of ‘detachment’) doesn’t always transmit smoothly, but the film has an impassioned ambience and does offer some wise truisms – both positive and negative – about the teaching profession, not the least of which is when one teacher says to another, “the worst bit about this job is nobody says ‘thank you'”. (April 2016)

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