Published May 03, 2012As much a condemnation of education system ethos as an ode to the titular human "detachment" as a signifier of such, Tony Kaye's latest sensationalist afterschool special preaches more than it narrates, assaulting the viewer with stylistic bathos as a mode of engaging or detracting from the exaggerated familiarity of it all. There's an acute sensibility of the human tendency to disassociate or resort to callousness rather than bravely embrace compassion, but it's handled with all the grace and dignity of a drunken sailor at ladies' night, vacillating between indie, handheld realism and jarring interview confessionals, black & white photography and animation.
In part, this overly affected auteur flourish compensates for substitute teacher Henry Barthes' (Adrien Brody) cool stoicism after he takes a gig at an inner-city school filled almost entirely with truculent sociopaths. He stares down the endless series of thugs with a calm understanding, using logic and compassion to deflate situations rather than making them personal. Thematically, he has a tendency to take on charity cases, like a zaftig photographer student (Kaye's real-life daughter, Betty) that encapsulates Heathers' Martha Dumptruck without the sense of humour, as well as a teen hooker (Sami Gayle) whose repeat offers to suck cock for money eventually cede to girlish sweetness in the film's most clichéd conceit.
Every teaching archetype is represented, from Tim Blake Nelson's despondent silence to James Caan's hilarious "fuck it all" attitude ― he shows a girl photos of a beautiful sunset and a gonorrhoea-infected vagina as a lesson about image scope when she refuses to dress appropriately ― to Christina Hendricks's depleting idealism. As juxtaposed with the opening sequence of real-life teachers talking about how they fell into the job after failing at other avenues, the lesson rings clear, as does the collective morality.
Since the dialogue exists to either provoke or guide perspective in a soapbox capacity, the characters all feel removed from each other, saying what the audience needs to hear rather than what they might actually say to each other. In a sense, this works to drive home the notion of detachment as a signifier for lifelong trajectory defeatism, but the desperate stylization and intense actor investment suggest that this outward solipsism was merely a coincidence.
Still, for all the desultory pretence and use of shock tactics to spruce up a familiar narrative there are a handful of profoundly emotional moments. It's just a shame that they only come when Kaye has his back turned and is unaware that his actors are actually being sincere. (Mongrel Media)