Reviewer: Jeffrey M Anderson
Ratings (out of five): *** 1/2
Movies about teachers can run the gamut from goopy to overly earnest, and even occasionally inspiring. Tony Kaye, the controversial director of American History X, gets credit for trying to explore the dark side of the genre, even darker than Half Nelson. In that movie, Ryan Gosling's history teacher wrestles his demons externally with drugs, but in the emotionally powerful, enlightening drama Detachment, the main character keeps everything inside.
Adrien Brody plays the distant, closed-off character, Mr. Barthes; and the actor wisely relies on his natural charisma to draw focus to himself, rather than hiding or turning blank. He carries his pain just below the surface, locked away but still present. He's mesmerizing, especially when facing some kind of classroom conflict.
Mr. Barthes works as a substitute teacher in tough New York City schools, willing to take on month-long assignments without getting tied down. Unlike some of his colleagues, his detachment allows him to deal with the cruel students, and to connect with the good ones, without ever getting personally involved. But things change when a teen prostitute, Erica (Sami Gayle), comes onto him. He takes her home to give her something to eat, and she ends up staying. Like everyone else in his life, he tries to cut her loose, but when one of his students tries to commit suicide, he realizes that he has reached a turning point.
The movie's other characters help to provide perspective, as harried, frenzied, damaged, deluded souls. Teachers played by James Caan, Lucy Liu, and Tim Blake Nelson truly suffer for their work, continually hoping that somehow, they're doing some good. (Caan and Liu share some good moments together.) And young Sami Gayle makes a striking debut here. Marcia Gay Harden plays a bitter, hardened principal who uses her power to save her job, threatened by low test scores, but this character seems a touch too spiky -- likewise the wonderful Bryan Cranston as her husband. And Christina Hendricks is around primarily as a sweet, soulful potential love interest for Brody.
Kaye throws in some strange, occasional blackboard animation and amber-colored flashbacks to help set the mood; one wonders whether Kaye might not be comfortable enough resting on the momentum of his story and characters and feels the need to show how brutal and strange he really is. (The movie is presented as a "Tony Kaye Talkie.") And then, despite all the weirdness, the story's events line up a little too neatly, all of them timed just perfectly to test Brody's character on cue. Nevertheless, the emotions are truthful, and the movie's satisfying ending is earned.
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