Meredith (Betty Kaye) sits in the back of her classroom in a Queens high school. She draws in her notebook, sketches of monsters and students and teachers. She also takes pictures. A student at the Queens high school where Detachment takes place, she uses her camera to capture and indict, to memorialize and possess. As you watch her from a series of low, close, disturbing angles, she records the adults around her, the teachers who dismiss or ignore her, and others who pay attention. She papers her bedroom with photos, she makes collages and she winces—so painfully—as her father berates her, disparaging her effort and her desperation, her isolation and also her weight, that terrible measure of worth in high school and everywhere else.
Fuming and frustrated and clearly doomed, Meredith is not quite at the center of Detachment. But still, and despite all the movie’s heavy-handed and familiar treatment of her, she remains poignant and compelling. If she’s unable to see the ends to which she’s used, you can hardly miss them. Her sharp photos of Mr. Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson), pressing himself against the chain link fence that marks the schoolyard, convey all his creepy possibilities. Images of Doris (Lucy Liu) peer into her soul’s decay (or, as she so helpfully explains to a student, her warning that she’s “become a carnival of pain and when you can’t stand it one more day, one more hour, it will get worse, much worse”). And photos of Henry (Adrien Brody), the substitute English teacher Meredith imagines will rescue her, convey his nobility, arrogance, and pain, especially when she scratches out his eyes.
According to Henry, Meredith’s rendition is not so far off from the way he sees himself. (And as Henry’s the film’s narrator, his version of events tends to pass as true… enough.) “I’m hollow,” he confesses late in the film, in part an effort to put off a fellow teacher, Sarah (Christina Hendricks), who might like him, and in part to confirm what you’ve been seeing. Each morning, he rides the city bus to the high school and in the evenings, he either goes home to his apartment or visits his grandfather (Louis Zorich) in his assisted living facility. Henry announces his displeasure at the lack of assistance his grandfather receives here, tearing into a nurse at the desk. “Let me be very clear here,” he roars in brutal close-up, “You stop neglecting his needs or I will start fucking with yours. I will have you fired, then it’s gonna be your family, your children are gonna be at risk!”
But Henry’s outrage is not reserved for this particular “undereducated drone, passing the time with these old dying people.” He’s mad too at his employer, his students, and his especially grandfather, who remembers his daughter (Henry’s mother) as an angel who comes to visit him, whereas Henry is besieged by miserable memories in the unimaginative form of grainy home-movie-looking footage, wherein his mother (Reagan Leonard) leans into the camera and looks haunting (she also looks a little like Sarah: eww), before he finds her dead of a drug overdose. As much as Henry tries not to argue with his grandfather (“I don’t want to talk about the past: you and I remember her very differently”), he’s caught as the caretaker now. “When you stop coming, Henry,” his grandfather moans, “I’ll die.” The grandson sighs and shakes his head.
He’s got so many burdens, you know. Not only does Henry have to characterize the dreadful conditions in public high schools these days (illustrated by scenes of sadistic students and frazzled teachers, grotesque parents and inadequate facilities, NCLB edicts from on high and bitter compliance by the principal [Marcia Gaye Harden]). No one can make sense of where they are, as hard as they all try to calculate a meaning or at least a location: when a boy (Lucian Maisel) is caught pounding a cat with a hammer for the entertainment of his peers, the dean (William Petersen) asks how he feels about what he’s done. The boy searches for the right answer and finds it, the metaphor that might impress his teachers: “I feel trapped like the cat,” he smiles.
Here and elsewhere, the camera cuts to Henry, whose reaction might impress you. Detachment uses his resentment and anguish to illustrate others. But as much as he wows his students, talking them through their rages and assigning them to write a “brief but detailed essay about what a friend or parent might say about you during your funeral,” he’s also unable to be what they need. He knows this, but he tries anyway, because he believes, at first, that he “can make a difference.”
He knows this thinking will be short-lived, identifying his peers as burnouts who used to believe too. As (decidedly weird and unconvincing) evidence of his hope, he brings home Erica (Sami Gayle), a stray who might recall his mother’s desperation or maybe his own abandonment. Henry spots her one evening on the bus, when she’s blowing an especially nasty client, and though he resists her sexual advances, he decides to feed and shelter her, asking in return that she not bring johns to his apartment—because, he tells her, he doesn’t judge her, and only wants to help her.
With Erica, as with Meredith, Henry offers a raft of mixed signals, inviting their adoration but also insisting on propriety (except, maybe, when he’s flashing back to alarming close-ups of Erica’s red lipstick and fishnets on the bus). The girls guess wrong, but he’s wrong too, not in his desire to help and change, but in servicing his particular damage and his needs. The difference being that he’s the one at the front of the classroom, the one instructing the rest of us. Whether he knows how wrong he is hardly matters. Whether the movie does, that’s another question.
As determined as Henry sounds when lecturing his students on the dangers of doublethink, of believing lies you know are lies. “This is a marketing holocaust,” he rumbles,” as the camera cuts to an admiring Meredith and the good student (Tiffani Holland) and the bully (Tarikk Mudu), at first menacing and then… coming around. Henry urges all to resist the process turning them into types, as “The powers that be are hard at work dumbing us to death.” To fight back, they must stop absorbing everything around them and instead learn to discriminate, to judge, to read, “to stimulate our own imagination.” The irony is pounding here, that the directive to read is delivered in such unsubtle form, apparently allowing for no reading whatsoever, only more absorbing.