Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On Getting Attached to Tony Kaye's latest film - Detachment

Title - Detachment
Director - Tony Kaye
Starring - Adrien Brody, Christina Hendricks, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Hayden, Sami Gayle, Betty Kaye.

Ah, the irony of indie movies. Some of them are much better than the movies that take away the golden statues and yet, by the time they get out into the mainstream, that golden man is already passe. Well, the silver lining is that I won't have to go into the chances of Adrien Brody winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Henry Barthes. Agreed, that Brody has made some dubious choices in picking some roles post The Pianist (with the notable exceptions like Salvador Dali in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited) but with this little gem of a character, he seems to have bounced back.

The director is the notorious Brit Tony Kaye, who debuted with American History X back in 2000. Surprisingly, between this and that, he has directed only one other movie, Black Water Transit, which I have not seen yet.  So what is a Tony Kaye movie like? Going by X and Detachment, one could say that his style revolves around having his characters scream at the camera, but obviously, it's not just that. What I loved about Detachment is how the story does not let the audience delve too deep into the characters' heads. It teases you, yes.. but that's about it. It is not about exploration. It's about knowing what's in there and not giving a fuck about it. Well, almost.

This is about teachers and kids. As simple as that. The failure of the American Public School system might have been a little far fetched in this movie according to some people but even they can understand why someone would make it like this. After having watched Boston Public and the fourth season of The Wire, I think this was a fair reflection at par with some elements from both the shows. If you're making a movie like this, it's very hard to stay away from racial stereotypes. But that's only a worry for people who want to make those "politically correct" movies. Tony Kaye gives no fucks and I love him for that.

Adrien Brody plays Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher who takes up a gig in a school where the board of directors is trying to oust the principal (Hayden) because the school's test scores are not high enough. It's not that the board cares about the knowledge students get from the teachers; they are more concerned about the real estate value of the neighbourhood going down due to the poor score. This does happen in America. They know it, you and I know it and so does Tony Kaye. The ensemble cast includes the beautiful Christina Hendricks (Joan Holloway from Mad Men), James Caan (Sonny Corleone in The Godfather) and Blythe Danner (De Niro's wife in Meet the Parents) as teachers in the school. Lucy Liu plays the guidance counselor. To see her in a role where she breaks down in the face of frustration as opposed to killing people with her high heels is quite refreshing. Two actors I respect a lot - Tim Blake Nelson and Bryan Cranston also have small but interesting roles here.

However, the actors who stole almost all the scenes that involved them, are Sami Gayle as a sixteen year old Erica, who's a "street walker" who ends up bunking with Henry and showing a much sweeter side in contrast  to an otherwise defensive attitude, and Betty Kaye as Meredith, a student in Henry's class, who plays the role of a vulnerable overweight kid to perfection. The way their story arcs conclude, perhaps defines the entire film. Don't look for any morals in this movie. If I were a teenager today and I had watched it, I'd probably take home the lesson that told me it's better to be angry at the world and have my defenses up all the time, instead of risking rejection by showing that I care about anything. 

Tony Kaye's invisibility in this film is not so obvious. Every time the camera zooms in to the face of whoever's talking, you can't brush aside Edward Furlong's face from American History X. Some might see it  as a film that's been over stylized; I can ignore that. But let's not pin a style-tag to a director who's just three movies old. At times, the film feels so real, you forget that there's a director standing next to the camera. We need more of these. We do.

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