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Detachment

Substitute Teacher, Just Trying to Do Good

by His Pupils

‘Detachment’

Starring Adrien Brody, Directed by Tony Kaye

“Detachment,” the latest provocation from Tony Kaye, the director of the neo-Nazi drama “American History X” and the graphic abortion documentary “Lake of Fire,” belongs to a subset of shockers that know exactly which nerves to prick to produce intense reactions. Like-minded movies determined to blow the lid off your complacency include Larry Clark’s “Kids” and Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” But how much can you trust films that blend high-minded outrage with a tabloid-savvy sensationalism?

To camouflage its trashier impulses, “Detachment” buttresses its jeremiad about the failing public-education system with quotations from “The Stranger” by Albert Camus and a reading from “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe. The shriller its didacticism, the more unhinged it becomes. But even at its most ludicrous — when it is shouting into your ear — its sheer audacity grabs your attention.

The particular hell explored in “Detachment” is a public high school (every high school, the movie implies) somewhere in the New York metropolitan area, as seen through the sorrowful eyes of Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), a dedicated substitute teacher. Henry, who lives a loner’s existence, copes with the stress of work by maintaining an attitude of compassionate detachment. In one of his best performances since “The Pianist,” Mr. Brody plays him as a quietly suffering saint whose anguished gaze tilts toward heaven.

Henry regularly visits a nursing home where his ailing grandfather (Louis Zorich) suffers from worsening dementia but is still rational enough to be racked with guilt for past sins involving Henry’s alcoholic mother (seen in lurid flashbacks), who committed suicide.

Ever the good Samaritan, Henry impulsively offers shelter to Erica (Sami Gayle), a 15-year-old runaway prostitute who follows him home. Under Henry’s chaste ministrations, Erika metamorphoses virtually overnight from a savage, foul-mouthed viper covered with sores and bruises into a radiant surrogate daughter.

Mr. Brody heads a strong cast that includes Marcia Gay Harden as the besieged principal who is fired because the school’s low test scores are blamed for the neighborhood’s property values; Christina Hendricks as a fellow teacher who initiates a tentative romance with Henry; James Caan, playing a cynical, pill-popping faculty clown; and Lucy Liu as Dr. Doris Parker, a guidance counselor who cracks under the stress.

In the most implausible scene, Dr. Parker goes ballistic when a student complains that she doesn’t like school and wants to be a model. Screaming hysterically that the girl is a shallow, disgusting creature, Dr. Parker brutally outlines the girl’s hopeless future.

Glimpses of the home lives of faculty members and students portray miserable, loveless families and neglected children. Henry’s best student is Meredith (Betty Kaye, the director’s daughter), a talented amateur photographer who, when scorned by her father, sobbingly throws herself into Henry’s arms for comfort. Just then, a fellow teacher enters the classroom and accuses Henry of “touching” her.

In the thick of the chaos stands Henry, whose poker-faced calm suggests a savior risen in the ruins. But is he really so noble? Or is his kindly stoicism an evasive, cowardly survival strategy? Isn’t the concept of compassionate detachment oxymoronic? Henry may give selflessly to others, but when they demand too much, he pulls the rug out. Will his empathy be enough to sustain them after he withdraws? Or is it a worse betrayal to renege after promising salvation?

The movie is tricked out with arty embellishments that include the insertion of crude blackboard sketches of nooses and guillotines, garish flashbacks and grim editorials directed to the camera. All are meant to bolster the movie’s claim to be Serious Cinema.

Ultimately, “Detachment” blames parental indifference for everything: students who hurl profanity at their teachers, teachers who collapse in histrionic despair, and total classroom dysfunction.

Is it really this bad? Or is “Detachment” a flashy educational horror movie masquerading as nightmarish reality?

Detachment

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Directed by Tony Kaye; written by Carl Lund; director of photography, Mr. Kaye; edited by Peter Goddard; production design by Jade Healy; costumes by Wendy Schecter; produced by Austin Stark, Benji Kohn, Bingo Gubelmann, Greg Shapiro, Mr. Lund and Chris Papavasiliou; released by Tribeca Film. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Adrien Brody (Henry Barthes), Marcia Gay Harden (Principal Carol Dearden), Christina Hendricks (Ms. Sarah Madison), William Petersen (Mr. Sarge Kepler), Bryan Cranston (Mr. Dearden), Tim Blake Nelson (Mr. Wiatt), Lucy Liu (Dr. Doris Parker), Blythe Danner (Ms. Perkins), James Caan (Mr. Charles Seaboldt), Sami Gayle (Erica), Louis Zorich (Grampa) and Betty Kaye (Meredith).