By B. Michael Rubin
For those people who believe that all public high schools in the US are excellent, here’s a movie that will change your mind. Oscar-winner Adrien Brody stars as a teacher in Detachment (O Substituto), a frightening look inside public education in America.
It should be noted for Brazilian audiences that, in general, public education in the US is better than in Brazil. For example, all students starting at the age of six, in public and private schools in the US, attend school all day. However, while most American parents send their children to public schools, there are still some very troubled schools, particularly in the largest cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where the majority of students come from poor families. Rich and middle-class American families in large cities must send their children to private schools because the public schools are not always safe. Many young middle-class parents move out of the big cities into the suburbs when their children are old enough to start school, as the best public schools are located in the suburbs.
This film provides an accurate look at the urban education system Brazilians never hear about. Adrien Brody portrays a substitute teacher, those teachers who fill-in when the regular teachers are sick. Mr. Brody’s character, Henry Barthes, takes a temporary assignment teaching English at a public high school in a large, unnamed city. From the opening seconds, audiences will feel they are in for wild, joyless, fascinating ride. Detachment wants to educate viewers and refuses to withhold any dirty secrets about the lives of its teachers or students or the teenagers who live on the streets and don’t go to school at all.
Henry Barthes receives his high school teaching assignment when the regular teacher calls in sick one day on the schools’ answering machine, and then calls again saying he’s quit forever. The permanent teacher gives no explanation for his leaving his job in the middle of the year, and doesn’t even bother to resign in person. His messages states only, “I can’t do it anymore.”
The British director, Tony Kaye, known for his hard-hitting films that shine an observer’s light on American problems, opens the film with a close-up of Adrien Brody talking about the dedication of school teachers and how much they sacrifice for their jobs, enduring low salaries and high stress. We glimpse the faces of unidentified people in close-ups, discussing their choice of teaching as a profession. They could be actors, but Kaye wants us to see them as real teachers, to introduce us to the film as if it were a documentary, even though it isn’t. Mr. Kaye likes authenticity, which he exhibited in a disturbing 1998 film called American History X about violent, racist teenage “skinheads” in the US. Kaye has also made a documentary film, Lake of Fire, about the abortion debate in the US.
Not since his Oscar-winning performance in The Pianist, has Adrien Brody invested so much energy in a role. His portrayal of the emotionally drifting Henry Barthes is an astonishing piece of acting. In every moment of the film, we feel Henry’s pain and the conflict he wrestles with – how to help teens without getting emotionally attached to them. It’s obvious from his first day of work how much the students need his help, but if he allows himself to grow close to them, he’ll be crushed when his efforts are useless. Most of the teens are beyond help, locked into an economic cycle of poverty and loss, and an educational system that cannot figure out how to educate them.
On the day Henry arrives for his new teaching job, we observe a private conversation between the principal of his school and her boss, who warns her she’s about to lose her job. What’s extraordinary is the fierceness and harsh language between these two — angry words of frustration — and exactly the opposite of what we would expect from the head of a large school.
Brazilian audiences will be equally shocked with Henry’s first minutes in his classroom when we meet some of his students, several of whom immediately test their bravado with threats of violence against Henry. In a later scene, one student spits in the face of a female teacher and gets suspended from school, only to return with her mother who screams at the teacher. The mother, who is black, accuses the teacher, who is white, of racism, saying if the teacher were better at her job, she would know how to handle her daughter. The mother says she will start a legal process against the school and makes it clear the daughter should not be suspended because the mother can’t handle her at home.
Meanwhile, when Henry isn’t teaching, we see him in his one-room apartment, wrestling with flashbacks of his own mother who has died. In his free time, he visits his grandfather who raised him when his mother died and who suffers now from dementia. It is in these scenes between Henry and his grandfather — and Henry and Sami, a teenage girl living on the streets — that Henry opens up. However, it’s clear that no matter how big his heart is, Henry will never be able to solve the world’s problems or even his own. He cannot care for his grandfather and also keep working, so his grandfather must be kept in a nursing home. Equally, he cannot save Sami, even after he invites her to stay in his apartment because she’s not 18, and there are legal and ethical issues to prevent their sharing an apartment permanently.
Besides the principal and a few teachers, we also meet the guidance counselors working at Henry’s school. The counselors are full-time staff members present in all American schools, who meet with students that are having problems. Like the teachers, the counselors are frustrated with how to help their students. They try but fail and we witness the toll of their frustration.
One counselor, portrayed by the Oscar-nominated actor James Caan, tries to convince an Asian female that not wearing underwear in school is sexually provocative. He does this by showing her a graphic photo of a woman with a sexually transmitted disease. However, he realizes his efforts will have no effect on the girl’s behavior, and her blunt language in his office exhibits her disadvantaged upbringing. Mr. Caan’s character remarks sarcastically as she leaves his office, “Another student saved.”
Lucy Liu plays another counselor, who worries about James Caan because he’s constantly taking “happy pills” as he calls them, which we can assume are prescription medication for depression or anxiety. Ms. Liu is equally depressed about her ability to help the students, and in one scene we watch her verbally abuse a student because of her own personal stress.
This film is filled with outstanding actors like Adrien Brody and James Caan. Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden portrays the principal of the school. Christina Hendricks plays another teacher; she is well-known to TV viewers for her role on the American series, Mad Men. This excellent cast of actors convinces us that every day of their jobs is a nightmare, fighting the impossible odds of trying to educate students who use foul language, have the reading and writing skills of small children, and cannot focus on their classwork or homework.
Golden Globe nominees Blythe Danner and Bryan Cranston have small roles. The latter plays the principal’s patient husband and Danner is a teacher, as is Tim Blake Nelson, whose character seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Nelson is a marvelous supporting actor who has appeared in over 50 films, including Lincoln, O Brother Where Art Thou, and Minority Report.
It should also be mentioned that several wonderful teenage performers play students in Detachment, and one of them is the director’s daughter, Betty Kaye, who plays a talented photographer shunned by other students because she’s overweight. Her character’s efforts to reach out to her favorite teacher, the substitute, are as heartbreaking as they are realistic.
Henry Barthes tries to care of an adolescent girl he first sees while she’s working as a prostitute on a public bus. In many ways, the relationship that develops between Henry and Sami is at the heart of this film. The teen actress who plays Sami is remarkable, as she steals every scene she appears in. This is her first film, and at the age of 15, the actress, Sami Gayle, is a star. Her power shines in this role, and Hollywood has already recognized her abilities. She has now been cast in a big budget epic of the life of the Bible character Noah. That film, directed by Darren Aronofsky (director of Black Swan), will open in 2014 with a huge Hollywood cast including Russell Crowe as Noah, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, and Jennifer Connelly.
It’s a real pleasure to see Adrien Brody as Henry Barthes utilizing his substantial acting talents, as he’s been in a number of bad movies since winning the Oscar in 2003, with the exception of his one delightful scene portraying Salvador Dalí in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It’s probably not a coincidence that Mr. Brody is the executive producer on Detachment, which means he contributed financially to its making.
Tony Kaye, the director, has crafted a remarkably painful picture of an urban American high school. It’s a difficult movie to watch, but with his background as a cinematographer, (and he’s the cameraman on this film as well), Kaye keeps us riveted with images both startling and powerful, so that no matter how painful, we continue to appreciate and enjoy his work.
I would also add a congratulations to the writer of this film, Carl Lund. As this is Mr. Lund’s first film, there is nothing to report on his screenwriting history. His first-hand knowledge of the challenges facing substitute teachers has obviously been put to good use. We witness their daily struggles with students, and even watch the agony of their home lives, where they sometimes receive no emotional support from their spouses.
Detachment is a remarkable and powerful film about how America is failing its poor, urban teenagers and forgetting the sacrifices of its teachers. As James Caan’s character notes: “No one ever says, Thank you.”Detachment (O Substituto) Director: Tony Kaye Writer: Carl Lund Cast: Adrien Brody, Sami Gayle, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks, Bryan Cranston, Tim Blake Nelson, Blythe Danner
Now available for DVD rental in Curitiba. Also appearing on NetTV on the Telecine Premium channel.
Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.