Tuesday, April 26, 2011


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Movie review of the world premiere of "Detachment" at the TriBeCa Film Festival.

The truth about high school is that it's worse than you remember it.

Watching Tony Kaye's enthralling “Detachment,” you can't help comparing your high school to the one on screen. You remember the terrible teachers you had, the sterile hallways, the asinine classmates, and the absurd assignments. You can remember the “weight that presses on everyone” as Mr. Henry Barthes, played by Adrien Brody, tells his class.

“If you can just hang on, everything will be alright.” Mr. Barthes is that hero teacher that we love tell stories about. He's the Christ, the Buddha. He's meant to save us from ourselves.

The problem? Mr. Barthes is a great teacher because he has no life outside of teaching. Like countless other mythologized teachers, Barthes is a detached island to himself, without spouse, children, or personal life.  He's a lonely dude.

As a public school teacher sitting in the audience at the world premiere last night in Tribeca, I have mixed feelings about telling you that Tony Kaye has masterfully succeeded in capturing public school in a macabre and beautiful chalkboard sketch. His lush, mannerist portrait brings a gorgeous but searing light to the lonely reality of the teaching profession. Mr. Kaye's “Detachment” presents school the way so many of us on the inside see it: a windswept wasteland scourged of its humanity by a culture that burdens its underfunded and unfairly censured teachers with rearing, policing, and institutionalizing our children.

I hate to say it: public school really is this bad. The few great teachers that our system manages to attract are barely hanging on from year to year, knocked senseless by a society that demands way too much from them.

Adrien Brody is riveting as a seemingly serene but deeply damaged substitute teacher.  His sloping eyebrows, sometimes treacly or overwrought in other performances, here convey an-inch-from-the-cliff hopelessness without ever becoming a mask.  Mr. Brody's Henry Barthes is sweetly but searingly honest with his students as he sadly skulks the halls of his school.  Barthes is also furious enough to throw desks in his classroom and scream at a late night nurse at his grandfather's assisted care facility. In close-up, documentary-style interviews, Mr. Brody's eyes flash like lightning one moment and then become as dull as concrete the next, daring us to try to understand how one can care so much and so little. It's a career performance.

Barthes' determination to be disconnected keeps him the perennial substitute-- in the classroom and in his personal life. Barthes tends to his grandfather but finds more than enough time to help out two lost girls, a young prostitute and an overweight loner. Despite his earnest efforts, almost none of it works out well. The complicating plot lines, all involving family surrogacy around Barthes, serve the notion that teachers must be dispassionate and alone in order to perform their jobs. The story survives its few yet regrettable school cliches by sticking to this thesis.

Despite the fact that the number of big names threatens to make the movie look like a cameo-fest (Lucy Liu?  Christina Hendricks?  Marcia Gay Harden? Blythe Danner?  James Caan?  Really?), the ensemble gels together surprisingly well.  After all, weren't your teachers an impossible cast of characters?  The performances are just fine, largely, but two are particularly successful. While Mr. Caan's grinning jester provides a refreshingly necessary gallows' humor in some of the film's darkest moments, it's Ms. Liu's imploding truth-teller that lends undeniable heft to the story. As a guidance counselor faced with yet another unreachable know-it-all teen, Ms. Liu's character finally breaks down, berating the student with a bleak prophecy of the child's future. “You will NOT be a model! You will forever be on a carousel, competing with 80% of the country for a minimum wage job for the rest of your life!” the guidance counselor screams uselessly at the apathetic teen.

It's grim stuff, made more grave by the undeniable ring of truth.

The ancient Greeks tell us "we suffer our way to wisdom."  By the end of the film, you'll hope that is true for most of these characters.  Somewhere on screen, between a silent hug and the opening lines to Poe's “Fall of the House of Usher,” you will find a glimmer of hope. But you have to work for it.

School, as the film has drawn it, is a Munch-esque desert where the best anyone (teachers and students) can do is survive. But the fact that Barthes, and teachers like him, won't give up-- and the fact that Mr. Kaye made this movie-- tells us that hope is alive, if not well.

This hope rests almost entirely in our lonely, detached teachers.

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