Hollywood has had lots to say about the American school system as of late and whether you choose to believe the information presented to you via eye-opening documentaries like Waiting For Superman or fictional phenomenon’s like Fox’s Glee it’s clear that our educational institutions are out-of whack at best broken at worst. No one has been able to depict this disheartening downward spiral quite like director Tony Kaye with his new film Detachment. In it the reclusive auteur focuses on just a few weeks in the life of Henry Barthes a substitute teacher who gets more than he bargained for when he takes a job at a fledgling high school and in the process gives parents professors and kids a much-needed wake-up call.
In this short period of time Kaye dissects the contemporary classroom with unflinching realism. The grainy worn film stock he uses for his verite’ photography coupled with topical subject matter ranging from child prostitution and teen suicide to parental negligence makes the movie appear to be more a documentary than a narrative feature but that’s where Carl Lund’s poetic screenplay comes in. His prose is simultaneously beautiful and brutal effortlessly supplying existential excerpts for star Adrien Brody darkly comic bits for fellow teacher James Caan and up-to-the-minute slanguage for the teenage students. He also uses this star-studded stage (the ensemble includes Marcia Gay Harden Tim Blake Nelson and Christina Hendricks among many others) to touch upon the larger sociopolitical issues effecting our schools and children lashing out at numerous initiatives/establishments like “No Child Left Behind” that we’re led to believe have been implemented to increase residential property values instead of grades. Though the script begins to sound like a sermon at times it’s not intrusive enough to become distasteful. Quite simply it’s brazenly truthful.
However excessive exposition can often hurt a film’s momentum and Kaye gets unnecessarily sidetracked with the painful back-stories of his characters. Brody’s Barthes is our central protagonist so the sub-plot involving his aging ailing grandfather is essential in defining him but the filmmaker forces insight into the lives of almost every teacher (and a few of the students) down our throats. Individually each vignette is heartrending but distracting; the majority of them have little connection to the main narrative. Collectively they illustrate many of the problems that contemporary families face and more importantly create an emotional crescendo leading into the inevitably tragic conclusion.
The brilliance of this casual buildup to the film’s climax is a nod to Kaye’s storytelling aptitude. I found him utilizing the kind of in-your-face filmmaking tactics that Spike Lee made commonplace in his early movies most noticeably with close-ups on a few actors who irritably address the camera head-on (like in Do The Right Thing). In addition he intensifies the action with quick cuts and aggressive push-ins that elaborate on each character’s crisis. Perfection clearly isn't his strong point; Kaye frames his shots sloppily at times and doesn't attempt anything groundbreaking but maximizes the potential of tried-and-true lo-fi techniques. His stylistic abilities are second only to Brody’s performance which is subtle sad and sweet all at once. We take an emotional and psychological plunge with the native New Yorker as he navigates a teenage wasteland of sex drugs violence and depression but it’s all just another day at school to America’s urban youth.
Long absent since his freshman feature American History X Detachment is a welcome return for Tony Kaye whose commitment to the integrity of this story is marked by unrelenting bleakness in its tone and uncensored cynicism regarding the state of our schools. He doesn’t portray every educator as a saint or every student as a sinner; through Brody he imparts on us the uneasy truth about the direct correlation between our failure as parents and the failure our children: we're one and the same. The true genius in his film is not represented in the text of his commentary but in his ability to forge an explanatory mosaic from his characters’ varying but related points of view. Because of this there are multiple mini-narratives that run through Detachment and all of them are worthy of your attention.
Shot in a nervous intrusive style Rachel Getting Married is a blistering portrait of a family during a tension-filled wedding weekend. The long-simmering conflicts come to the surface at an event that’s supposed to be about good times. Actually the title is a bit of a misnomer since although it is indeed Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) getting hitched the plot really revolves around her troubled sister Kym (Hathaway) who comes straight from a stint in rehab to the family gathering. In attending the wedding she brings a boatload of personal issues--sibling and parental resentments and a whole host of other problems guaranteed to make everyone in the room uncomfortable. This all comes to a head early on at the pre-wedding dinner at which she makes an awkward piercing toast that puts the entire place on edge. It doesn’t help that her father (Bill Irwin) is rather weak and overprotective and her mother (Debra Winger) is now remarried and has moved on to a different kind of life--disconnected from her daughters emotionally. The wedding a Hindu ceremony becomes a catalyst for personal confrontations that finally break out into the open. The ensemble cast assembled by director Jonathan Demme is simply unbeatable--led by a breakthrough performance from Hathaway. Her wry ironic humor internal self-loathing seething conflicts and heartbreaking emotional vulnerability are all the by-products of a young woman who desperately needs to be embraced. This is a major acting turn and those who only think of Hathaway from Ella Enchanted and The Princess Diaries are going to be surprised to see the emergence of an actress who is the real thing. As her sister Rachel DeWitt who also was impressive as the mistress in season one of Mad Men doesn’t get to take center stage but has several strong moments. Watch out for this one. Irwin and Winger prove the meaning of the word “pro” in their limited screen time. In just a couple of big scenes Winger totally nails the mother and her need to distance her relationship with her own family. You only wish the part was fleshed out a little more especially since great roles for Winger seem to be few and far between these days. Irwin is equally impressive likeable but clueless as far as the real drama playing out between his daughters. This Tony-winning Broadway veteran gives us a lifetime of information about his character in just a few scattered moments. The Oscar-winning Demme (Silence of the Lambs Philadelphia) has spent the last few years doing documentaries and concert films so it’s nice to report he’s got his mojo back with his first narrative film since 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate remake. Actually Rachel seems influenced by some of his recent non-fictional work with a documentary style approach to screenwriter Jenny Lumet’s somewhat conventional scripting. The use of hand-held cameras is pervasive and has the intended effect of bringing out raw emotions in the kind of cinema verite Robert Altman often employed. In a nod to the obvious inspiration the late Altman is thanked in the end credits. Demme’s in-your-face filmmaking might be oft-putting to some members of the audience but it effectively heightens the reality of the piece separating Rachel from the pack. Ultimately this is a performance piece and Demme has brought out the best of his cast of fine actors gaining award-worthy turns.