Like ‘Half Nelson’ and Laurent Cantet’s ‘The Class’, ‘Detachment’ tries to take a more realistic look at high school, focusing on teachers and students as real people, with flaws and virtues. Here the main character is a substitute teacher, Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), who starts working at a public school where his colleagues are burned out and most of the students are unmotivated.
Barthes is a solitary man; his only known relative is a demented grandfather staying at an elderly home. While this loneliness seems to be a choice, he seems to struggle between the wish to leave a mark on the students and a feeling of indifference (thus the title ‘Detachment’) towards everything and everyone.
Director Tony Kaye (‘American History X’) intertwines Barthes’ thoughts, as expressed to an unknown speaker, with his lessons and wanderings from home to the school to the hospital, and his relationship with an underage street prostitute. Also, in a series of apparently unconnected scenes, we assist to the other teachers’ everyday struggle (the teachers being played by a stunning cast including Christina Hendricks, James Caan, Marcia Gay Harden, Lucy Liu and Blythe Danner).
The result of all these is at the same time stimulating and excessive. There are powerful scenes intertwined with affected situations, subtlety combined with clichés. In the overall, though, the originality and apparent honesty of the approach counterbalance the movie’s flaws.