By Frank Scheck
NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Movies have been depicting the horrors of the American educational system for more than half a century, from "The Blackboard Jungle" to "Dangerous Minds" to others too numerous to mention.
But none have reached quite the nightmarish depths of "Detachment," the latest effort from cinematic provocateur Tony Kaye. This film depicting the hellish experiences of a high school substitute teacher makes such previous works by the filmmaker as "American History X" seem positively lighthearted by comparison. While commercial prospects look dicey, there's sure to be kudos for the film, which recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Adrien Brody, delivering his finest performance since "The Pianist," plays the central role of the disaffected Henry Barthes. Henry's latest gig is at an inner city public school that is clearly falling apart. Its principal (Marcia Gay Harden) is about to be forced out due to abysmal test scores; the teachers and other staff members all seem to be floundering; and the vast majority of students display zero interest in learning.
But the kids do respond positively to Henry's stoic demeanor, his refusal to back down in the face of their taunts and his uncommon degree of empathy. Among those who blossom under his tutelage is Meredith (Betty Kaye, the director's daughter), an emotionally fragile young woman who displays a genuine talent for photography.
While attempting to handle his demanding work duties, Henry must also contend with a grandfather (Louis Zorich) suffering from dementia and -- representing the film's most clichØd element -- a teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle) who he takes under his wing.
As usual, the director injects intense visual stylization into the proceedings to arresting effect. The film begins with stark, black-and-white filmed interviews with presumably real teachers describing their experiences, and also includes brief animated snippets commenting on the action and a series of sepia-toned flashbacks depicting a traumatic event from Henry's childhood.
Carl Lund's screenplay is most effective in its depictions of the charged interactions between the students and teachers, which could have been written by Paddy Chayefsky in his prime. Among the powerful performers in the terrific ensemble are James Caan as a wisecracking older teacher who's seen it all; Christina Hendricks as a colleague who takes a shine to Henry; Lucy Liu as a guidance counselor reduced to verbally abusing her charges; and Tim Blake Nelson as another teacher who's on the verge of cracking.
The younger performers make equally strong impressions, while Brody delivers an award-caliber turn that is all the more effective for the quiet restraint he exhibits for most of the film's running time.
It could certainly be argued that "Detachment" is ultimately more sensationalistic than it is enlightening. But there's no denying that it's the work of a powerhouse filmmaker trying to shake audiences up. Here he succeeds handily.