Detachment – Wow, this was a crazy-angry movie. Adrien Brody plays a substitute teacher who keeps severing his connection to the students by moving on from one job to the next. This movie shows a one-month period in a high school where the students are apathetic (at best) and the staff (including principle Marcia Gay Harden, counsellor Lucy Lui and teacher Christina Hendricks, all excellent) are all burnt out. It’s tough to watch; director Tony Kaye slaps us over and over in the face with such consant degradation that we too become detached, and the sorrow is less effective. This is an ode to the failures of the public school system, and though I know it has its flaws, it seems downright impossible that there is nary a student nor administrator in all of Queens who has ever experienced even a singular moment of happiness. Nothing here is implausible, it’s just that not every bad thing can possibly happen does happen, and certainly not all before lunch. It’s like Kaye has gleefully scraped together a big pile of dog shit, and he’s intent on rubbing our noses in it for as long as we hold out (which makes me feel dumb for sticking it out).
There’s a lot going on stylistically – the chalkboard occasionally gets animated, and there are sporadic interviews that made me wonder at first if I’d accidentally stumbled onto a documentary. But then the drama kicks in, and we quickly overdose from it. Tony Kaye is notoriously difficult to work with (the only other feature film he was able to bring to screen forced Edward Norton to pull rank and recut American History X himself)., so it’s suprising so many stars returned his calls to get this film done. It would seem, however, that some have sincelearned their lesson. Bryan Cranston has said that he has not seen the film “Because I felt that Carl Lund, the writer of Detachment, wrote a really beautiful, haunting script. And I didn’t feel that it was honored. I was upset with that. I really was. And so I didn’t see the movie. Tony Kaye is a very complicated… interesting fellow. I don’t believe that I’ll be working with him again. I didn’t not get along with him on a personal level. But I just honor the writing. I really think that writing is the most important element there is. It is the springboard. It is where everything starts. And if you don’t honor that – which I didn’t feel it was – then where are you? And I’m not the only actor on that film to feel that way.”
Half Nelson – Ryan Gosling’s character in Half Nelson, Dan, is a lot like Adrien Brody’s in Detachment. They can both get it together in their rough classrooms, but their personal lives are in tatters. An ex-girlfriend rattles Dan to the point of getting high in the school locker room, where he’s discovered by his student, Drey (Shareeka Epps). The friendship that grows out of this encounter is sweet and wary, and Dan feels understandbly uncomfortable being so vulnerable in front of one of his kids. Drey sees his addiction the way Dan sees the bad influence of drug dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie) in her life, but they can’t seem to resist going down their own wrong paths, let alone keep each other from doing the same. Dan is terrific with his students but can’t get through a day without freebasing cocaine. It’s tough to watch, but so much more rewarding than Detachment, because although we see real gritty misery, there are also small veins for hope.
Although I enjoyed the performaces in Detachment, there were almost too many sub-plots to serve any one story well. Bryan Cranston and Blythe Danner and James Caan were pratically throw-aways. In Half Nelson, Gosling, Epps, and Mackie dazzle with performances that are really nuanced and subtle. You get the sense that Kaye wants to knock you over the head with his themes whereas Half Nelson is more comfortable asking you to make your own decisions. There may not be any great heralding sense of triumph, but neither do we bask in self-pity. Gosling earned an Oscar nomination for his work on the film; and it was scored by a talented Canadian band by the name of Broken Social Scene.
So there you have it, two uplifting movies just in time for back to school! Are you ready for a new school year at your house? Did you have a favourite teacher growing up? Were they mostly sober? How about a favourite school movie?