How does a talented teacher survive the chaos and frustration of an urban high school classroom? According to Carl Lund, the former public school teacher who wrote the screenplay for Tony Kaye’s persuasive and sensitive film, the answer is with an ingrained dose of “Detachment.” The very fact that Henry Barthes, the movie’s protagonist and sometime narrator, prefers to work as a permanent substitute (accepting short-term assignments for teachers on leave) rather than as a full-time classroom teacher, can be read as his way of detaching himself from establishing meaningful relationships with colleagues and students. Actually, because Henry is the kind of person who easily falls into such relationships, subbing provides him with the escape hatch he needs to pull away when those relationships threaten to become too intense for comfort. If his modus operandi smacks of cowardice, it’s the kind of cowardice reminiscent of the Western hero in the white hat—the guy who comes into town to change things, and then rides off into the sunset—to find another town to save, leaving a sweetheart and the local sheriff to cope on their own.
“Detachment” is only the second feature film from Kaye, whose debut was “American History X” in 1998, the well-received drama about two brothers’ conflicting involvement in the neo-Nazi movement. Often described as “provocative,” Kaye has spent the years since making award-winning music videos, an acclaimed documentary about abortion in America titled “Lake of Fire,” and another feature—“Black Water Transit” —yet to be released. “Detachment” is not provocative in the style of “Waiting for Superman,” whose accompanying book was subtitled “How We Can Save America’s Failing Public Schools.” It doesn’t hold out any false expectations or propose dissolutions.
What it does, and very effectively, is show us how a teaching staff composed of very different personalities deals with the failure of public education in the microcosm of this particular high school. But this is no blackboard jungle. The school doesn’t look rundown; the students are apathetic but well dressed, as are the teachers. It’s kind of a stretch to believe that not a single parent shows up for Parents’ Night. The closest we get to even meeting a parent is the off-screen rant of one father who badgers his daughter that her hobby of photography will never get her into Princeton.
The adults we do see are played by some of the best American actors working in film today. Marcia Gay Harden is exceptional as a principal–on-the-edge, a good administrator about to be fired for her school’s poor test results. There’s a marvelous scene where a government official delivers a spiel to the staff that exposes the “No Child Left Behind” doctrine as a tool to increase property values.