Maybe I was wrong when I said in the ’21 Jump Street’ review that high school sucks. Maybe I meant to say “public” high schools suck.
The film stars Adrien Brody as a disillusioned substitute teacher named Henry Barthes, who seems to have just as many problems as his apathetic students. When he inadvertently becomes a role model for the student body, he finds that he is not the only lost soul struggling to find meaning in this world.
It’s been a long, long time since director Tony Kaye has graced us with his presence and every time I watch ‘American History X’, which is a lot I may add, I can’t stop thinking to myself, “where the hell has this guy gone?”. Now, I know the answer and it’s simple: making great movies that are set in high school.
Former teacher, Carl Lund, wrote this story and from what I see here, this guy had a lot of hard shit to go through. I mean I don’t know what Lund had to go through as a teacher but from what I see here is that being a teacher is hard. Lund brings up a lot of questions about the public high school system but he never points any fingers or condemns anyone, he just shows that being a teacher is hard mainly because you try, you try, and you try to help out a student and in the end, they either don’t care enough or don’t care at all. This wouldn’t be so bad but the fact that these kids don’t care, eventually gets sprung out onto the teachers and then you basically have 40-45 minutes worth of class-time where neither anybody cares about anything and all your time in this world is wasted.
Since I go to a Catholic high school, I’m not too sure of what it means to have such problems like this but I can easily say that a lot of the public schools around me have started to fall apart just because of school districts that just want high grades from these students with no return and teachers continue to demand more and more money. Hell, actually, that’s happened at my school earlier in the year so it’s not just the public schools either, it’s all schools. This script is a pretty big wake-up call because it not only shows the struggles that teachers go through on a daily basis, but also the struggles schools have in general and just how bad everything really can get behind closed doors. It’s a pretty good look at high school, and it’s also a look that I haven’t seen before considering these types of films usually end with all of the slacker kids getting A+’s on their final exams.
Lund definitely found the right director for this material with Tony Kaye because he brings so much energy to this otherwise simple story. Kaye is a veteran of music videos and commercials and a lot of that skills show through is way of bringing so much flair and style to this material that at times, it may get a little over-bearing, but at other times you also have to realize that he’s making this film more tense and provocative. The film has a narrative that jumps around to all of Henry’s sub-plots (and trust me, there are plenty) and the way Kaye is able to show this sometimes through a documentary feel or either through having Brody speak to the camera indirectly by letting all of his frustration out. It definitely creates a lot of tension with this flick and it shows how well Kaye is able at stirring the pot but is also great at taking us out of that as well with a couple of amusing animated shots of what’s going through a lot of these teachers’ heads. They are all pretty funny to watch but they are also brutally honest in the way they show just how it must really feel to put up with all of the shit that they do sometimes. Still though, I’m not always behind teacher’s backs. Trust me on that.
The problem with this flick is that it won’t be for everybody considering there is so much sadness going on and around this flick that it almost is contagious. I didn’t really go into this flick expecting a light and happy-filled flick about how a teacher brings the spirits back to his students, but it can get a little too dark for me and even when the comedy does come around every once and a blue moon, it’s a totally huge surprise.
Another problem I had with this flick was that I think they somewhat over-do the whole “problems between teachers and students” thing a little too much. There are some moments that are genuine as hell and feel like they were taken right out of the classroom, but then there are other moments where somebody starts crying or acting outlandish a way that would probably get out a lot of emotion from the audience, but they sometimes don’t feel that genuine. There’s one scene in particular where Lucy Liu is this school counselor that is so fed up with her job that she just starts balling her eyes out while hooting and hollering at this one student and it seemed totally dumb, unbelievable, melodramatic, and pretty much poorly-acted from Liu herself. There aren’t many moments like this in the flick but when they did happen, I couldn’t help but think that they were a little too over-dramatic.
In recent time, Adrien Brody has taken apart of some questionable material ever since he won his Oscar in 2002 but this is probably his best performance ever since that win. Brody gives a likable performance that makes it easy for us to stand behind him as his life starts to unfold and he’s able to express so many emotions from happiness, to anger, to sadness, and he does it all by the use of his eyes which makes it all believable and real. It’s a great performance from Brody and one that reminded me just why he did win that Oscar in the first place.
As for the rest of the ensemble, they are all pretty good with the limited amounts of time each one is given. James Caan is amusing as the pill-popping teacher who finds a dark way of enjoying his days in school; Marcia Gay Harden feels real as the watered-down principal that is expecting to be fired soon; but the two kids out of this cast are probably the best with Sami Gayle and Betty Kaye both giving compassionate and realistic performances and every time each one of them is on-screen with Brody, the film always seem to light up.
Consensus: Detachment may have some over-dramatic moments, but with Kaye’s inspired direction, great acting by its huge ensemble (especially Brody in the lead), and a real examination at the public high school system, makes it a powerful and dramatic flick that will and definitely should serve as a wake-up call to teachers and students alike.