Detachment - Sami Gayle and Adrien Brody
Abused teenage hooker Erica (Sami Gayle) and disillusioned substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) become unlikely soulmates © 2011 Detachment LLC

Overwhelming, heartbreaking and essential, Detachment is the first must-see film of 2012. This brutal portrait of a disillusioned teacher at a “transfer dump” high school is an unflinching indictment of an education system that doesn’t work, students who won’t learn and parents who don’t care. It’s also an artistic triumph for visionary director Tony Kaye.

Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a haunted and hollow long-term substitute tapped to spend a month teaching English at a school with as many problems as pupils. It’s the kind of place where fellow teacher Sarah Madison (Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks) is spat upon and verbally assaulted by a gangsta-talking girl who threatens to have her gang-raped, and  where guidance counselor Doris Parker (Lucy Liu) is reduced to shrieking hysterics after one too many infuriating encounters with the arrogantly unmotivated.

Marcia Gay Harden is effectively bitter as Principal Carol Dearden, soon to be forced from her job because low test scores are bringing down local real estate values. Tim Blake Nelson has a small role as a pathetic teacher who is as ignored and unappreciated at home as he is at school. James Caan is a smartass faculty member who shows a trashy female student a graphic eight-by-ten as a warning about her likely future: “That’s a photo of a vagina infected with gonorrhea.”

Detachment - Marcia Gay Harden
Carol Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden) is the scapegoat principal at a failing high school © 2011 Detachment LLC

The plot also has a sly politically incorrect undertone that ridicules a ranting parent who threatens to sue the school for racism and another who demands a free laptop for his wildly destructive ADHD son. The school’s never-seen dean of students is so disgusted he resigns by leaving an answering machine message, and a dead “child hater” teacher is openly mocked by fellow educators at his memorial service.

Henry’s personal problems include the repercussions of a childhood family tragedy and the frustrations of dealing with an Alzheimer’s-stricken grandfather. At school, Henry attempts to remain detached from the soul-killing realization that he may as well be a faceless man talking to an empty room. That’s how he is depicted in a piece of artwork by an overweight and friendless student named Meredith (the director’s daughter Betty Kaye).

The movie’s unexpected heart (as in “of gold” and “hooker with”) is a homeless teenage streetwalker named Erica, played with breakout-star believability by Sami Gayle (TV’s Blue Bloods) in her first feature role. Sad and street-tough but desperately yearning for a human connection, Erica begins a strange relationship with Henry that proves neither of them is beyond redemption.

Director Kaye, who famously wanted his name removed from the credits of his nonetheless excellent American History X in an editing dispute, has crafted an equally powerful drama here. Scenes are broken up by clever blackboard animation visuals (by Rebecca Foster), flashbacks are grainy color-saturated home movies, and stark black-and-white interviews with real teachers appear before the opening credits. Parts of the film have a handheld documentary style that works well with Brody’s unglamorous and convincingly shell-shocked performance. And while a few obviously arty shots (Henry and Erica leaning against a blood-red brick wall, a school hallway littered with books and dead leaves) may be flagrantly showy, they’re also perfect.

Former schoolteacher Carl Lund’s screenplay weaves tragedy, despair and disturbing violence with an unconventional but deeply affecting love story. The script includes so many unsettling interludes it almost becomes darkly comic, in an “if you don’t laugh, you’ll never stop weeping” sense. It becomes hard not to wonder what fresh horrors the excellent ensemble cast will encounter next.

Intense, unforgettable and moving, Detachment is guaranteed to make this year’s 10-best list.

[Rating: 4.5 stars]

Detachment was first in theatres last Friday, March 16, 2012 in New York and this Friday March 23, 2012 in LA.

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.