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A Public School Drama, With ‘Detachment’ At Its Core

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
March 15, 2012

Like most hot-button issues, the state of our schools makes dogmatists of us all. It’s the parents! It’s the teachers! It’s the students, the unions, the bureaucrats, the politicians; it’s poverty and inequality, it’s fixable, it’s hopeless! And so on.

At the movies, all it typically takes to turn this intractable mess around is one charismatic teacher armed with a profound disdain for the curriculum and a quotable literary classic in his pocket. Sidney Poitier, Robin Williams, Richard Dreyfuss, Michelle Pfeiffer and Edward James Olmos are but a few who have given their all to pedagogic rescue, not forgetting Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher.

Detachment, a gritty new urban drama by the British-born director Tony Kaye, is nobody’s idea of Mr. Holland’s Opus, but it winds up in a similar place, more or less: One man with a mission, and preferably a powerful need to atone, can make a difference — even if he’s Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), a substitute teacher by choice with a basinful of his own trauma going in.

The public high school that Henry enters for a one-month stint is a familiar patch of scorched earth, staffed by burned-out idealists and barely attended by students sunk in apathy or aggression. Parents storm in to swear at the office workers from time to time, but on parents’ night they must be marked absent.

With his austere black suit and unflappable calm, Henry certainly looks the heroic part, and Brody persuasively underplays his quiet authority in the classroom. But the actor is undermined by a bloated script (from Carl Lund, a former public-school teacher) that lumbers him with bloviating asides about how we have failed our children.

So we have, and it is also true that great teachers take the edge off that structural failure on a daily basis. But like most movie pedagogues, Henry is a great guru, which is not at all the same thing as a great teacher. He has an entire class of truculent teens eating out of his hand within minutes, an achievement that may set eyes rolling among teachers — even the most gifted ones — who toil daily in the trenches of under-staffed, under-equipped schools.

In fact Henry is neither a good teacher nor a bad one. He’s more like Jesus Christ, and he spends much of the movie firmly nailed to the cross of his own suffering, and that of the world around him. This will surprise no one familiar with Kaye’s love of apocalypse, in American History X and other movies. Christlike in both his burdens and his ability to attract adoration, Henry isn’t all that convincing as a human being.

And for a man who runs, we’re told, from all long-term attachments, Henry is exhaustingly over-committed: In between caring for a terminally ill grandfather (Louis Zorich), he takes in an angel-faced under-aged hooker (Sami Gayle), ministers to a bullied pupil (smartly played by Kaye’s daughter Betty) and finds time for a chaste smooch with a lonely colleague (Christina Hendricks), who rewards him with a betrayal whose unintended consequences quickly turn fatal. And it’s not just Henry; to underscore the awfulness of it all, nearly every adult in Detachment goes home at the end of the day to a wrecked domestic life.

Kaye is an innovative stylist, adept at juggling grim realism with urban-grunge lyricism and fetching curlicues of blackboard animation. In its grimy way, Detachment is rather beautiful, and it’s sustained by a terrific ensemble including Marcia Gay Harden as the beleaguered school principal and James Caan as a veteran teacher whose sense of the absurd keeps him and his colleagues from going under — at least for a while.

Detachment is passionate, sincere and occasionally razor-sharp in ways you’d expect from the director of Lake of Fire, one of the finest documentaries ever made about the abortion debate. There isn’t a cynical moment in this overblown drama, but it feels personal in a way that perhaps shouldn’t also become political; Kaye has movingly expressed remorse for having abandoned his own family when his children were very young.

As a study in how a man learns to become a parent to himself and to others, Detachment may grip your soul. But its end-state despair about our cities and our schools feels inflated, showy and quite possibly beside the point. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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