[11 April 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I would project my anger onto the people I cared about.”
—Mark Zupan, Murderball
“You want me to jack off?” Nina (Andrea Riseborough) is onto something. Specifically, as Disconnect begins, she’s connected—in an anonymous, cyberworld sort of way—to 18-year-old Kyle (Max Thieriot). She’s a local Long Island television reporter looking for a break, and he’s a sex model, available on a website for money. Safe in her apartment with her laptop, she exchanges messages with him, their language flirty and elusive—except for the sex part, which is, of course, very upfront.
Nina and Kyle’s mutual seduction sets up a pattern for Disconnect, which is to say heir tenuous, deceptive connection is one of several that go wrong in variously terrible ways. They begin with a game of teasing and guessing, seeing in each other a chance for selfish benefit: she wants a story that might make her name nationally, he wants to be paid. Their relationship changes shape, as she pursues her story (“You must think about the future”) and he entices her to show herself on camera (“You’re really hot!”) Even as Nina notes that he could be her little brother, their dynamic shifts. When, after some prodding, he agrees to meet in person for an interview, he’s upset to learn she’s a reporter and not a trick. As they sit in a vaguely urban setting, the camera set back to indicate the tension, a young drug dealer in a wheelchair passes between them and the camera.
For viewers who’ve seen Murderball, the remarkable documentary by Dana Adam Shapiro and Disconnect‘s director Henry Alex Rubin (his first fiction feature), this glimpse of Mark Zupan may be just a bit thrilling. Though he’s only on screen for seconds, Zupan draws some attention to the potential stakes here, being something of a real-life model for how to connect, in physical, emotional, and very direct ways. Unfortunately, the wheelchair-rugby player is here and gone before that attention actually changes those stakes. Instead, the film heads into a series of distracting and predictable plot turns.
Kyle’s story folds into Nina’s, as he so obviously lacks the options he thinks he has, determining and to an extent succeeding in seducing the reporter who should know better. That is, until she does in fact know better, meaning that she realizes what you already know, that her line of work—in which she puts a sex worker on camera for her own purposes—is as exploitative as the pimp who runs Kyle and his coworkers. On one level, Nina’s route to her realization is too easy, a plotting issue ordained by her poor reporting tactics, the sort of reporting that movies like to showcase and sometimes critique: she googles, she signs in to chat-rooms, she rummages through tweets. On another level, Nina’s caught up in a broader melodrama, the wannabe celebrity who needs to beware what she wishes for. If this storyline also sounds familiar, at least it tries to motivate her shortcuts and sometimes shocking lack of forethought.
At the same time, Nina’s experience is also reduced in this overcrowded film by another set of shortcuts. As Disconnect aspires to Crash-like self-importance and overstatement, it sets Nina’s narrative alongside two others, one featuring two fathers who don’t attend to their sons, and another featuring a husband and wife who don’t attend to one another. The backstory for Cindy (Paula Patton) and Derek (Alexander Skarsgård) is first short-cutted in their last name, the Hulls (!), and then reduced to bits of enough trauma to fill up several movies: he’s a war veteran unable to talk to her about it; they’ve recently lost a child and can’t talk to one another about that; and she’s found some solace in a bereaved parents’ chat-room, only to find that someone in it has stolen her identity in order to clean out their bank accounts. Derek’s sense of violation and betrayal leads pretty much directly to a movie version of an outsized marine’s response, framed as revenge and accessorized with guns. Here again, the woman in the storyline embodies the guilt and the coming to knowledge, her visible pain a means for her less expressive husband to regain his man-ness. Good for him, less for you.
This role is left to something like a sub-story within the fathers’ saga, that is, in the experience of the older sister of a cyberbullying victim. Abby (Haley Ramm) is introduced as you might expect, dismissive of nerdy 15-year-old Ben (Jonah Bobo), and about as attentive to him as her parents, workaholic Rich (Jason Bateman) and underwritten Lydia (Hope Davis). All of their lives turn upside down when Ben is tormented by a sext-photo that goes viral at school, which tragic consequence leads Rich to investigate his son’s online activities in an effort to get to know him. As too late as Rich’s efforts may be, at least they’re efforts, which is more than can be said for the response by Mike (Frank Grillo), the father of Jason (Colin Ford), one of the kids who torment Ben.
The interconnecting element here, that Mike is the cyber-investigator hired by Derek and Cindy, means that he knows, supposedly, all about what terrible things people might do online, to each other and to themselves. It’s not surprising that he finds it hard to confront this in Jason. But again, the film can’t do much more than pose the problem. You glimpse that the boy’s bullying reflects and repeats his relationship with his dad, and how his dad and Ben’s dad seek recourse in the same sort of manly man business as a traumatized marine. And you see, in one remarkable moment in one less remarkable scene, that Abby is bearing her parents’ inability to take responsibility for what’s happening. “I was the one that found him!” she sobs, framed in a doorway that marks their separation.
To its credit, the film doesn’t present to fix this problem in a couple of scenes. But because they are unresolvable, Abby’s few seconds here, like Mark Zuppan’s at film’s start, remind you of what’s not on screen.