“Detachment” is a difficult film to watch because it is not at all happy. Adrien Brody plays Henry Barthes, a career substitute teacher who can’t bring himself to make a commitment to anyone or anything. He believes he is detached from himself, but his practiced insularity actually only sharpens his aching loneliness. He keeps flash-backing, in his self-absorbed memory, to the scene where he found his mother, who’d committed suicide with a bottle of pills when he was only 8. He never knew his father. So he was raised by his grandfather, who’s now in an assisted living facility, beset by dementia, but Henry dutifully visits him, and will allow his anger to erupt at the staff if he feels they’re being inattentive. Otherwise, he tries not to feel anything. Like he’s sleepwalking through his own life.
This proves to be a useful skill in dealing with the enormously abusive students in his urban ghetto high school English class. They taunt him and call him names and swear and curse and dare him to do something about it, because they are all as insulated and isolated and frightened as he is, and they are also suffering from incapacitatingly low self-esteem. One student, Meredith, who is overweight and ostracized and called names by the others, draws pictures of Mr. Barthes, with a blank face in front of an empty classroom. The students, seeing that they cannot gross out, intimidate, or discourage the enigmatic Mr. Barthes, begin to develop a grudging respect, and are disappointed when it is time for him to go substitute somewhere else. He fantasizes about staying and developing a real relationship with them, but he can’t sustain enough volition to risk making it happen.
He also tries to ignore a hooker who’s being beaten on the bus back to his apartment, but there is something about her that haunts him---she too, is obviously alone and struggling in an unfeeling world, accepting the naked hostility from strangers that masquerades as sexual affection because she literally has nowhere else to go. Sami Gayle, as Erica, is hauntingly vulnerable in this role. (Here’s hoping that she has broader-scoped acting opportunities in her future.)
The other teachers at the school are, understandably, burned-out shells of their former idealistic selves. The principal (Marcia Gay Harden) is like a crusty croissant, flaky on the outside and hollow on the inside. The district administration comes in and threatens them about their students’ low test scores. The only time they hear from any parents is when they are berated for any well-deserved discipline they might attempt to exercise on a student. They have a Parents Night and literally, no one shows up. Nobody cares. The palpable indifference is just overwhelming.
Whew. Such painful, depressing isolationism is just not fun, even if it is poignant. Even a random lively dinner with a good-looking single colleague, Ms. Sarah (Christina Hendricks), can’t raise our Mr. Barthes out of his terminal funk. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas