It seems like it’s been awhile since we’ve had a “good teacher trying to make a difference in a bad school” movie. It’s a premise we’ve seen many, many times before in films like Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds. We’ve even seen the principal get involved when it comes to getting those low test scores up in Lean on Me. Now we have Detachment, a film that attempts not only to be this same genre, but also several other things at the same time.
Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a substitute teacher whose latest job has brought him to a troubled school where most of the kids just don’t seem to care about their grades or their future. He makes the best of this while trying to deal with all of the other things going on in his life including regularly checking up on his grandfather (Louis Zorich) in a nursing home and taking care of a young prostitute, Erica (Sami Gayle), he’s saved from the streets. Meanwhile, at school, his students come to accept him as someone who truly wants to help. One of his students, a young girl named Meredith (Betty Kaye), even begins to develop an obsession with him.
Just from that synopsis you can probably see the major problem that this film has. It wants to be about so many different things, trying to pull itself in so many different directions, that the movie itself becomes lost somewhere in the mix. On the one hand, it wants to be the standard “teacher helping troubled students” film, while it also wants to be about Henry’s relationship with his grandfather, his relationship with Erica, and Meredith’s obsession with him.
The storylines don’t even end there as it also attempts to encompass the troubled lives of the teachers and administration of the school. Screenwriter Carl Lund doesn’t seem to understand that, while it’s ok to have subplots, trying to make five different plots equal in a film like this is only going to lead to disaster. All it ends up doing is not allowing any of them to develop properly as it jumps back and forth between all of these stories. This is Lund’s first screenplay and it clearly shows.
To make matters worse, the film is structured with frequent interruptions by an interview with Henry after the events of the film, which merely serve as just that, interruptions, which disrupt any flow that the movie tries to establish. This was a very strange structuring decision to make, especially since there’s already not enough time for the multiple plots, so why take up time that could be used to develop them?
The one saving grace of the film ends up being Brody’s excellent performance. He puts a lot of emotion into the material and really gives it his all, showing that struggle he is going through between wanting to help his students and all of the other difficult things going on in his life really well. It’s just a shame that the material is unworthy and unsupportive of his strong portrayal.
There are also several “why did they bother” performances from some pretty good actors like James Caan, Bryan Cranston, Marcia Gay Harden, and Lucy Liu that have you asking that very question because they are such small roles. Liu even appears to be trying to make up for the fact that her screentime is so limited by overacting quite a bit in one particular scene where she’s trying to tell a problem student about her future prospects.
If Lund had been able to narrow the focus of his screenplay to one of these plots then he might have had a decent story here. Even cutting it down to just two or three might have worked a whole lot better, but one thing’s for sure, trying to compact all of these plots into one film and expecting it to work as a whole was rather foolish. Even a talented director like Tony Kaye (American History X) and a great performance from Brody can’t save a mess like this.