Damn, I wish more people liked this film. I am a sucker for ensemble casts of diverse, interesting characters, and there are very few groups of people that fit this description more than those of teachers. Each a very distinct, different person, all forming one bigger group of people who work day in and day out, teaching students, most of whom would rather be at home than sitting in a classroom being lectured on subjects that don’t interest them. The education system has been explored in films many times previously, but I don’t believe ever as brutally as Detachment.
Detachment‘s large cast is lead by Adrien Brody, who plays Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher for a junior class in a rapidly deteriorating high school. Henry is a dedicated and passionate teacher who tries to instill a sense of value and worth into the kids, especially those who feel left out or unpopular. Outside of the classroom, the inspiring Henry has his own major issues. He is frequently haunted by the memories of his mother who committed suicide when he was a child, the impending death of his terminally ill grandfather, and the fact that he tries to help a teenage prostitute regain her life back, but she becomes too attached to Henry as her father figure to leave. Other than Henry, other teachers and faculty are having huge problems of their own – including the principal (Marcia Gay Harden), who is being forced to resign from her position heading up the school which parents are refusing to send their kids to anymore because of how poor the school’s test results and reputation has gotten, and a guidance counselor (Lucy Liu) who spends so much time helping troubled teens, she is failing to address her own sanity and is at the end of her rope as well.
I’ve always believed there are two types of films – those to entertain, and those to inform. Detachment may take the cake as the most depressing film I’ve ever seen. Films that tell honest stories like this usually have some kind of saving grace behind them in the form of a tenacious lead character, comic relief or an inspiring story at the core. Detachment has no such thing. It is an absolutely brutal and often terrifyingly sad film. At the risk of spoiling the film for those who do want to see it (and I do recommend the film), I will say that those expecting things to get better, don’t get your hopes up.
The film is an emotional roller-coaster. It is incredibly sad, but not because of the old Hollywood cliche of playing with our emotions through sad situations and melancholic music, but because this film is so terrifyingly true. This film doesn’t tell the story of something that will happen to only one person making them question their lives. It tells the story of nearly every teacher in nearly every school in every single country in the world. Teachers who go in, day in and day out, and try and teach people who don’t want to be taught. To deal with troubled children and children who cause trouble. To be the one person to try and inspire hopeless children to turn their lives around. To be the person that that suicidal teenager can depend on for a shoulder to cry on and a friend to guide them. If there was any doubt teachers had it tough, Detachment reaffirms my belief that teachers are some of the most hardworking, dedicated people alive, and just like policemen and firemen, teachers are absolute heroes as well.
Besides the very depressing, but ultimately transcendent and strangely beautiful story, Detachment is an excellent film – Adrien Brody is a great actor who very rarely gets the chance to show off his talents, which is sad considering he is the youngest Best Actor winner in history. In Detachment, he gives possibly his best performance as Henry, the man who will just not give up, despite the evidence that his life is spiraling way out of control, and he needs to hold it together. The supporting cast is equally brilliant – Marcia Gay Harden as the bitter principal, James Caan as the playfully coy Mr. Seaboldt, Christina Hendricks as the kind and believing young teacher, Lucy Liu as the conflicted guidance counselor and the children who basically form the base of the film, the ones who are the reason for the events of the film. NAME as the girl selling her body on the streets every night for some measly money gives a star making turn, and is able to hold her own against Brody. They have fantastic chemistry, and her character of Erica may very well be the only person in the film who still believes in the power of friendship and making a change being possible. The cast is incredibly strong, and even if some of the great actors (such as Blythe Danner and Bryan Cranston) being underused, it is still a very strong ensemble.
I will not deny that Detachment is a rough film. It is depressing, sad and will leave you feeling deflated, sad and will question your own high school experience, and make you reconsider your teachers not as educators, but as people themselves with their own demons that they have to handle. It is a beautifully profound film that I hope everyone who has ever been through the education system, whether as student, parent or teacher, will watch, because while it may not tell a grand, sweeping historical story, it sure as hell tells an important one that is never truly and fully given the attention it needs. An underrated masterpiece that I hope will become less misunderstood as time goes on.