We are all students, even teachers are. The grind of a substitute teacher is vicious, unrelenting and enlightening if one finds a way to let it be. Tony Kaye, the director of American History X, is back in the director’s chair with Detachment, a look into the life of a substitute teacher in a troubled school. The spotlight is on Adrien Brody, playing Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher that drifts in and out of classrooms, until he makes some genuine connections working with his latest class.
Director Tony Kaye mixes a documentary type of feel with pulse-pounding frames that tell the main story. There are several times where the film will cut to Henry Barthes in an interview setting, opening up and giving more insight into the events of the film’s timeline, and it works in helping the film feel real. It’s almost as if a bonus feature is running and the character of Henry Barthes is being interviewed. The main story is told with snippets of flashbacks, distorted in color, rounding the characters just right. The camera captures the color-muted classrooms, intense hallways that silently scream, and the steam of the students and teachers in the perfect light. This all adds to fully-realized characters, as Kaye brings out the best in his actors and truly makes this film personal.
Adrien Brody, playing Henry Barthes, gives a painfully real performances as a gifted teacher that prefers to isolate himself and live with his pain rather than release it . Barthes is almost like Catcher in the Rye’s Holden all grown up, still trapped in the role of trying to save everyone. Brody captures the resiliency of a veteran substitute teacher, with a glowing mind that enlightens everyone; yet, he also conveys the skeletons in his closet with mastered care. Barthes is a man that owns his burdens, and uses his gift to help others as a way to gather the strength to withstand them. This might be Brody’s best performance to date. One of the main connections that breaks Barthes’ barrier starts when he takes in a teenage prostitute named Erica, boldly played by Sami Gayle, and forms a relationship with her that surpasses seduction. Gayle’s attraction to Barthes is so natural and her redemption relies on her connection to Barthes. There chemistry is natural and blisteringly real.
The supporting cast, made up of talents such as James Caan, Lucy Liu, and Christina Hendricks, round out the movie well, portraying teachers that are fed up with giving their all in return for nothing. The actors playing the students are also collectively a standout.
Detachment is one of those films that gets under your skin and has the potential to change your perception of life. It paints loneliness and heartache as a way of living rather than a part of life that will pass; in a way, it makes loneliness comfortable. The film digs into the education system’s failure to reach students that are born hopeless, despite the “no child left behind” motto. This story of the life of a faceless teacher with a voice that bleeds through the screen really grasps your attention like the rim of a gun barrel pressing against your eye. To let go, to detach is to be truly selfless; this is Henry Barthes’ way of life.
For the most part, the film is powerful and sincere, but there are a few scenes that may seem forced and slightly overacted. Some may also think that the life of teachers seems overplayed and a bit extreme, and others may think it’s pitch perfect for the translation to cinema.
Film Recommendations:American History X Half-Nelson Stand and Deliver
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