Politicians and pundits never tire of discussing the shortcomings of America's public-education system, as teachers are either held up as saints or denigrated for being out of touch and protected by a union less interested in students than in saving their own from unemployment. Tony Kaye's Detachment attempts to burn through this rhetoric with an engaging portrait of a flawed man whose job is to reach the students the system is failing.
The movie stars Adrien Brody as Henry Barthes, a substitute English teacher who takes a monthlong assignment at the worst high school in his district. Troubled kids are funneled to the building, parents are nowhere to be found, and every member of the staff is stressed to the breaking point by the aggressive, unmotivated, and seemingly unreachable students. Barthes has made substituting his career because it fits his emotional makeup; he doesn't try to form bonds with anyone, in large part because of his own tumultuous childhood, which reveals itself in scenes of him visiting his ailing grandfather at an assisted-care facility. However, he drops his defense mechanisms to help Erica (Sami Gayle), a teen prostitute he meets during a late-night bus ride after a visit with his grandfather.
Kaye's movie is far from an upbeat, feel-good To Sir, With Love for the 21st century. It's a film devoted to understanding the necessity, as well as the limits, of the basic human desire to help other people. Barthes intones at one point that there are some days when we simply have "limited space for others," but Kaye makes it clear that the students who attend this school have no chance at all without teachers, counselors, and principals who must constantly make space for them.
It's a harrowing dichotomy, and Brody is perfectly cast as the complex lead character. There aren't many performers who do haunted as well as Brody; after all, he won his well-deserved Oscar for portraying a man ravaged by his experiences during the Holocaust. He plays Barthes' empathy, intelligence, and pain with a matter-of-fact manner that grounds the film, even when some of the situations become nearly operatic in their melodramatic scope.
Carl Lund's ambitious script wants to provide a hard look at the realities of a school full of discarded kids, but it offers hope by giving us a main character who is just as full of anger and pain as the kids he's teaching -- he's a living example that you can keep going in the face of such monumental personal problems. Barthes throws a couple of tantrums in the movie, and in those instances we not only understand the depth of his pain, but the struggle he personally fights every day to keep himself together.
As a psychological portrait of the main character, Detachment is a compelling experience. By the end, we understand why Barthes is drawn to this work. There are moments where Kaye overreaches, however, especially in his attempts to infuriate us with the state of the modern public-school system. But every time the movie threatens to boil over into unbridled one-note hysterics about a dismal situation, Kaye brings us back to the gaunt, tired face of Adrien Brody, and we realize there's nothing simplistic about what the film is trying to accomplish.