Published On: April 7, 2013


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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.

Adrien Brody

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.”

Christina Hendricks

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.

Marcia Gay Harden

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.

James Caan

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.

Tim Blake Nelson

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.

Lucy Liu

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.

Sami Gayle as a teen prostitute in a scene from Detachment

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.

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  1. Nicholas says:

    My Peruvian born and naturalized US citizen wife is an Elementary Public School Teacher. She Teaches Spanish as a second language, English as second language, Social Studies (whatever social today means) and Math. She went to an American school (much better than the ones in the US. Why? better funded include by big corporations, I’m not a fan of that at all, but they do have qualified teachers and are paid very well for their standard of living in Peru, which is key for succes. She finshed her studies at a private university in Lima and here in Miami. She is She is an old fashioned 2 masters degree teacher, something they don’t require here anymore if you want to become a low wage teacher with less benefits and worse a 401K (no more a traditional pension plan for them, but a nice pool of money that will be used to gamble with on the worthless stockmarket. Never look at “the number” of the DOW Jones, Nasdaq or S&P, but always pay closer attention to the value of your dollar vs other currencies and important commodities such as gold). Back to the topic, she knows the problems though her school is an A+ school. Main problems are funding and to many non qualified teachers in front of class and benefits being cut (pay more, get less) which discourge many teachers, specially the ones who are there for a paycheck. Another issue is, to avoid problems, teachers explain less than what is in the books (teaching critical thinking is a no no) and you cannot explain more than what is in the books (thanks to the department of education, books know better). Problems in private schools are similare. Private schools (who want or need tax deductions, in otherwords, bribe them) still use the same school books they use in public schools. Only difference is, the costs for tuition is high (and rising) and it only exist by making the parents “believe” that they are better. I always ask people to think and I always question them. If they are so good, if they are so free market oriented, if politicians who claim that the private sector of education always know it better, are capable of regulating themself and that government (tax payer money) should stay out of education, why are the people being lectured all the time that it’s great to use public tax funds to fund private schools through tuition vouchers? I’ll come back to that topic when I explain from my Financial background the true agenda of brainwashing the parents that public schools are terrible (not always true and that is actually the true agenda of this movie) and private schools are superior (neither always true).

    2 Notes: Private schools also use money that is being borrowed through the tax payers without letting the taxpayers know, which makes it a debt for all taxpayers. Property tax money for education does NOT go to local education. It goes to the department of education that use the money for whatever they need, spread it around the country and it’s used to pay off only the interest on the money they borrow and use for the educational system in the US (and for other purposes). I found that out by taking a closer look at my property tax statement (that most people don’t read nor understand). From there I found links how much miami dade county actually borrows at what interest rate and how much they pay a year on interest only (they don’t even pay off the principal, a debt that will enver be paid off). I wish more people did that to understand from who we truly borrow (it’s not China), why we will never pay of our so called national debt and whom we’re being hold hostage and ruins our educational system.

    I’m not from the United States, nor from Brazil, I have no kids, I went to a public school and community college in The Netherlands. I also studied here at a private university in Miami Florida. I used to work for an investment bank but now for myself. My wife and I travel alot to Peru and Brazil (a nation I study, a nation we both love and where we have alot of friends at different cities).

    “It should be noted for Brazilian audiences that, in general, public education in the US is better than in Brazil.”

    I note for Brazilians that people from the US will always (no matter what) will lecture Brazilians that their public schools are better compare to the ones in Brazil. In reality that’s half true. There are good, bad, terrible public schools in both nations, no matter what neighborhoods. Same with the private schools, but it is true that “on paper” students in the United States(on paper is statistically, something that most people are so obsessed without even taking time to understand why and how they came up with those number they publish for it’s readers)outperform the Brazilian students in Brazil.

    “For example, all students starting at the age of six, in public and private schools in the US, attend school all day.”

    Not great example at all. Brazilians in Brazil should and must ingore those examples and ignore the United States for examples when it comes to education. According to a study produced by the economist intelligence unit for pearson and by doing my own homework in 2012, Finland is indeed still the land for Brazilians to pay attention and to work with. It still has the best educational sytem where kids start at age 7 (in Holland it’s 5 and is considered the 3 best after Denmark. Norway, a country with the same scandinavian values and genetics as Finland but follows the US standards, gets results more-or-less similar to the US. US is considered one of the worst performers in the so called OECD countries when it comes to Education. Brazil is not a member (and should not even bother). Brazil scores as high as Mexico (slightly lower vs the United States when you read the OECD list), but Brazil scores better compare to Chile ( Another one in the OECD list, the worst performer in education in the OECD but hailed as the best example in South America for “equality”, Chicago boys “free trade” style).

    In all three nations, Finland, Denmark and Holland you won’t find private schools nor home schooling. All public schools are treated as private schools but are 100% funded by the national government). The teachers and it’s school pricipals are in charge and work with the or without the union to solve problems and with or without the minister of education. Most of the time, the minister is involved. This also happens in some states in Brazil, but in the North and North-East regions (the regions that need more investments in schools, education and better qualified teachers), that is not always the case, which is the real problems. You can have state of art buildings but with no good qualified teachers who are paid well and treated well, you will not go anywhere.

    The age for beginnig school is not the point why the system in Finland is far more succesful.
    The 10 main reasons they are succesful is:
    1 school system is 100% funded by the government and is wide open for all kids in Finland. That’s why it’s called public school, 6.1% of GDP. Government is not some mythical building but inside that building there are people who are elected by the the people of and work for the people. If something goes wrong, people (must)take action.
    2 Kids rarely take exams and have less homework until they are well into their teens.
    3 The children are not measured at all for the first six years of their education.
    4 There is only one mandatory standardized test in Finland, taken when children are 16.
    5 All teachers in Finland must have a masters degree, which is fully subsidized (debt free teachers). They must have a masters degree in what they want to teach = qualified teachers. Majority of them belong to the union, thus unions are not always the problem as some claim.
    6 Teachers are given the same status as doctors and lawyers
    same status in this case mean, treat them well as doctors. They are just as important in our society and teaching is basically transfer the knowledge to the next generation.
    7 The national curriculum is only broad guidelines.
    8 Teachers only spend 4 hours a day in the classroom, and take 2 hours a week for professional development (in what they teach).
    9 93 percent of Finns graduate from high school.
    10 over 50 percent of Finnish high-school students go to vocational schools. This is good in my opinion, why bother to pay so much for an overhyped ivy league university where they teach you how to crash the economy and brag about it on a blog or in a book.

    2013 and Finland still outperform in Europe and compare in the rest of the world. Enough Reasons why Brazilians must pay attention to examples to nations as Finland rather watching hollywood movies that are made in a country known by many Brazilians who lived in the US that the US is not a great example at all. The truth is, it was (ask the generation of the 50’s and 60’s) but not anymore.

    Why they push parents in the United States to move their kids to a private school?
    Detachment (the movie is full of overpaid actors and actress who have their kids in private schools, bash public schools in general, but lecture in public the people about the know problems, don’t do anything about it themself but “donate” to politicians who ruin the system indirect (defuning the system slowly) is not the first movie that shows the people about the failures/ problems. The truth is, it’s just another propaganda machine of private schools are the answer. Why? The truth is, it’s all about money (as usual). What they want is, break the system, push the teachers towards the private system, so you can pay them less benefits they promised them long time ago. Break the system through free trade / free market / market must and can regulate themself rhetoric (laissez faire)and have zero government involvement. have a system that is on it’s own and where in reality teachers have less benefits is so called saving the money. If that was so true, Detroit city would be the best city in the world, Mcdonalds today 2013 would not require a bachelor degree in Business Administration to be a cashier at their local restaurant, and the US would be the true number one in the world. Reality shows different, but they, movie makers, know that most people in the United States are hooked with hollywood and free market ideology.

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