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Tony Kaye (American History X) helms this kaleidoscopic drama of education and alienation.
"Let's, um, let's not have people come in, I'd like to do this without people coming in here - and close the door."
The words that open Tony Kaye's Detachment immediately place their speaker, Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), at a distance from viewers - as does the film's barrage of alienation effects, rapidly intercutting multiple ensemble narratives with chalkboard animations, impressionistic flashbacks and talking heads. It's akin to witnessing a world of noisy chaos, anchored only by a figure who refuses to engage though himself a part of the mess.
Barthes, an intense, melancholic and rather aloof figure, has been closing himself off from others since his traumatic childhood, and now, as a talented English substitute teacher, struggles to guide a younger generation "to become somebody, to get out of the sea of pain that we all have to get out of." Yet he never allows himself to get close, nor commits to a more permanent teaching arrangement - until his sense of withdrawal is challenged by encounters with two damaged teenagers, the runaway Erica (Sami Gayle) and misfit pupil Meredith (played by the director's daughter Betty).
Detachment is a film of clashes and contrasts, as masterful editing sets up an ongoing dialectic between love and loneliness, between reaching out and crossing the line. It is also a film of big ideas, about the values of education, the dangers of 'ubiquitous assimilation', and the social atomisation of the Internet Age (a point it miraculously conveys without once showing a computer).
Detachment presents us with (mostly) capable teachers, but avoids all the cliches of the 'heroic educator' movie by eschewing or subverting any facile reassurances. These characters' victories, if indeed there are any, are measured less in grandiose achievements than in the struggle itself - a struggle to make sense of and do right in a cold and indifferent universe. It is a struggle, the film suggests, that we are always losing as much as winning. And so Detachment, with its expertly contained performances and and uncompromisingly messy provocations, strives to makes intelligent, independent-minded adults of us all. If you love serious, engaging cinema, you'll want in from the start.
Despite its title and central theme, Tony Kaye's complicated lament for values abandoned and children betrayed leaves little room for indifference.
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