Best known for directing cult classic American History X (1998), Tony Kaye is back with his latest release Detachment (2011). Having secured Edward Norton an Academy Award nomination for the former, Kaye has attracted a high profile cast for the latter, with Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu and Bryan Cranston all in attendance.
We follow highly-regarded substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Brody) as he begins filling in at a failing school. Barthes quickly observes a host of aggressive students being marshaled by a team of frustrated teachers, who don’t seem to be making much of an impression on their pupils. The school is in desperate need of someone with his talents, but Barthes avoids commitment and refuses to stay in one place for too long. However, after meeting two lonely young girls, Barthes must change his outlook in order to bring about lasting good.
Kaye’s Detachment presents a broken US education system, offering a few possible explanations as to why this may have come to pass. Teachers, parents and capitalism all come under fire, but the film ultimately asks the audience to consider the issue for themselves. This is no easy viewing experience, depicting characters and subplots which are difficult to assess in primitive terms of good and/or bad. The film requires the audience to become more than just passive spectators, which results in an interesting and engaging experience.
Unfortunately, although Caan provides some much needed comic relief in a few sequences, Detachment’s ensemble cast are largely peripheral. Limited screen-time, combined with the casting of such well-known faces, sadly results in a series of unbelievable star turns which lack authenticity. Whilst Brody does offer a solid performance, it’s the relative newcomers who are given a chance to really shine. Sami Gayle and Betty Kaye (daughter of Tony) are both superb as the troubled young women in need of direction, with Gayle in particular marking herself out as one to watch in the future.
Whilst Detachment does have some fantastic moments, the end result is somewhat unfocused. Featuring a series of to-camera sections, the odd bit of poetic narration and even animated snippets, Kaye crams a few too many plot strands and cinematic forms into too short a space of time. Detachment clearly has high aspirations, but unfortunately its jumbled narration means that it falls just shy of the mark.