by Susan Patterson
I walked into Detachment cold. I knew nothing of Tony Kaye’s work (American History X was released at a time when I didn’t watch films and its subject matter never made me inclined to follow it up) but did know that Detachment starred Adrien Brody and was (probably) a drama. Had I bothered to do my homework I would have never stepped into the auditorium.
Henry Barthes (Brody) is a substitute English teacher; a man who stands up to class bullies, excluding the ones who bully their classmates, inspiring those who blow up at him to stay, to write, to be saved by English literature, and of course, by him. It’s this first writing exercise that that sparks devotion in artistic, misunderstood Meredith, played beautifully by Kaye’s own daughter Betty, that can only end badly. But this is not Detachment’s story. Ethereal snippets of Henry’s childhood are edited into the narrative, and loving visits to his ailing grandfather leave him crying on his way home on the bus, where he meets teenage prostitute, Erica (Sami Gayle). Erica taunts him then follows him home, where he incredibly allows her to stay. He angers Erica when he comes home late after a date with fellow teacher Ms Madison (Christina Hendricks).
Henry is clearly damaged and avoiding engaging with his own pain. His relationship with these three women plays out against this background. However, the rest of the teachers (Lucy Liu, James Caan, Blythe Danner and Tim Blake Nelson) are as messed up and as unhappy as him, and set against the hopelessness of the students, this makes for uncomfortable viewing. Principal Carol Deardon (Marcia Gay Harden) is fighting a messy rearguard action for her job and against the corporatisation of her school, where the answer, like in Toby Young’s Britain, to making education better is to educate better children.
Detachment is heavily stylised. Henry’s childhood memories are fragmentary and very Super 8. It starts with face on testimonials from (probably) real teachers, and an early interview-like snippet with Henry talking about the value of literature and education. These snippets come from the near future, and without context as to who Henry is talking to, or why, they add to the sense of impending gloom. They also added to an unsettling feel as to whether this was a documentary, a drama or a mix up of both. It only needed to turn out to be improvised for this to be my worst type of film: worthy, messagey and unscripted. Had I known what was coming I would never have willingly watched something as relentlessly gloomy. But Detachment was better than that, better than my choices, and was worth sticking with. My only remaining gripe is the cliché of English teacher as saviour, the only one who can truly see and understand his charges’ pain.