Detachment, the first dramatic feature from director Tony Kaye since his skinhead psychodrama American History X (1998), might be called the ashy dregs of the inspirational-teacher genre. But that’s only because the film so strikingly reflects the public-school crisis of its time. At its center is a gifted, tormented, and self-sacrificial teacher, Henry (Adrien Brody), who chooses to be a substitute because his commitment is hedged. The inner-city high school class he takes over doesn’t just feature the usual troublemakers waiting to be saved through higher learning. Even the nicer kids are mostly beyond reach. Their attention spans have been zapped from birth; all they’re committed to is seeing the future as a black hole.
When it stays in the classroom, Detachment is a scrappy testament — to the futility of even trying to reach students who are cut off from the possibilities of knowledge, and to the way that our teachers are slowly being driven nuts. Brody, as the semi-fallen idealist, has a haggard eloquence, and Tim Blake Nelson, Christina Hendricks, and James Caan, as his colleagues, act out a bitterly funny spectrum of desolation. But the film would be better if Kaye hadn’t included a Taxi Driver subplot in which Brody rescues a teen hooker in fishnets (Sami Gayle). Just because it’s “provocative” doesn’t mean that you buy it. (Also available on VOD) B