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USA 2011
Directed by
Tony Kaye
97 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Tony Kaye’s portrait of the American public school system in crisis is a long way from 1988’s Stand And Deliver. There a committed teacher managed to turn around a class of poor Mexican-Americans, here a  substitute teacher barely manages to get through his one month term.  

Adrien Brody plays Henry Barthes, the substitute teacher who comes to a crumbling unidentified school with out-of-control students, aggro parents and the teaching and administrative staff on the edge of breakdown. Director Kaye piles on the angst with only the barest note of relief and this will earn some audiences’ scorn but especially if you like misery this should work a treat.

Go-to sad-sack Brody not only has to deal with the revolting kids but has a dying grandfather (there is also a raft of personal issues there) and on the side takes in a young girl (Sami Gayle) working as a street prostitute. Multiply this number of crosses-to-bear by those of all the other characters, played by a top drawer cast including Marcia Gay Harden, Tim Blake Nelson, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu and Blythe Danner, and it is surprising that the film works at all.

Its success is attributable to its sincerity. As the saying goes, you couldn’t  make this stuff up and, indeed, scriptwriter and co-producer Carl Lund is an ex-teacher. Kaye, a director with a relatively small output whose best-known work to date has been the equally sincere American History X, Brody, who was also an executive producer, and the rest of the cast are also evidently committed to the eye-opening project.  It is only when the film tries to be hopeful, which is largely in post-narrative interview style segments with Henry speaking to the camera, that it sounds contrived and preachy. Of course there will be naysayers but on its own terms Detachment makes a potent statement. God alone knows what its equivalent will be in 25 years time.

FYI: The overweight student who develops a crush on Henry is played by Betty Kaye, the director’s daughter.

Available from: Hopscotch Films and Entertainment




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