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2013-11-22 07:58
What it's about:

A career substitute teacher finds his general detachment from his assignments challenged as he is engaged by the students of his latest class, while his personal life also takes a turn as he meets and befriends a homeless teenage prostitute.

What we thought:

If ever there was a film that is perfectly encapsulated by its title, it's this one. Detachment both perfectly describes the main theme of the film as we meet a group of characters who are detached from their own lives and, unfortunately, its primary flaw: the sense of detachment that the audience feels from what is going on in the film itself.

Here we have yet another in a long line of films where a disengaged teacher enriches the lives of a group of misfit students who in turn enriches his or her own life. It doesn't matter whether we're talking School of Rock, Dangerous Minds or Dead Poets Society, we have seen this story before and we have seen it often. I am willing to bet, however, that we haven't quite seen it done like this before.

At the heart of most of these films is a real sense of inspiration and upliftment as teacher and students affect each others lives for the better, but Detachment thoroughly and relentlessly refuses to follow this model. Forget having your heartstrings tugged or your tear ducts jerked because Detachment is easily one of the bleakest, most oppressively harsh films to come out this year. Or, at least, in 2011.

It is worth mentioning at this point that Detachment took its sweet, sweet time getting to these shores. Originally shown at festivals in 2011 and released in the US on video-on-demand in early 2012, you can probably import this film on budget DVD by this point. The release schedule of films in South Africa continues to be utterly bewildering as we get this movie two years late, while many really worthy indie films don't make it here at all – even some not so indie films.

Anyway, back to the film at hand, regardless of how late it is, I can't see it making much of a splash at local cinemas. Partly, this would be a great pity as it features some exceptional performances, really admirable intentions and plenty of excellent moments, but the sheer, unremitting bleakness of the film means that it will struggle to find an audience and will struggle even harder to win over those who do dare to see it.

This is precisely the sort of film that should thrive on the emotional attachment of its audience but unfortunately, between its seriously distracting stylistic ticks – and there are a lot of them – and it's complete lack of lightness among the darkness forces the viewer to pull away from what's going on on-screen. In no time at all, what should be a truly moving story instead feels melodramatic and manipulative, even as it hits on real universal truths. It also certainly doesn't help that the characters are nowhere near developed enough to be this unlikable and this unrelatable.

Also, please tell me that teenagers in the real world aren't this horrible. Not to sound like an old man telling those damn kids to get off my lawn (hey, I'm only in my early 30s!) but if these malignant maggots depicted in the film are truly the future of the human race then the apocalypse really couldn't come soon enough. People have always told me that I was born in the wrong era but, aside for leaving me feeling utterly cold, Detachment has made me feel older and more out of touch with kids today than I ever would have thought possible at this stage in my life. But then, maybe that's the point.

Sorry to be so flippant about this, but joking (or am I?) about this film is the only way I can properly process it - it makes director Tony Kaye's breakthrough, American History X, look like Airplane II in comparison. Even if its heavy handedness, gimmicky “artsiness” and occasionally plodding and pretentious dialogue constantly threatens to derail it, there is certainly a lot to clinically admire about Detachment, not least of which is Adrian Brody's seriously superb central performance. There's just really very, very little to enjoy.

Forget both the film's obvious flaws and triumphs, Detachment's biggest failing is that it uses its relentless bleakness to ensure complete emotional detachment from its audience.

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