**1/2 (out of four)
The last time Christina Hendricks and Bryan Cranston shared the screen, “Drive” became the best movie of 2011.
“Detachment,” the latest from controversial director Tony Kaye (“American History X,” “Lake of Fire”), neither reaches the tight, flawlessly executed heights of “Drive” nor features those actors as prominently (Cranston has only a couple lines in a nothing role in “Detachment”).
Adrien Brody stars as Henry, who sure knows how to make an impression as a substitute teacher: Soon after walking into class he tells the students to leave if they don’t want to be there. Of course one loudmouth loves this idea, getting up to leave (after insulting both his classmate and his teacher) and asking Henry if he should go to the dean. The sub responds, “I don’t care where you go.”
In the cruel world of this deeply cynical movie, a vicious circle emerges: Students who don’t care, parents who don’t understand and teachers on the verge of giving up. That extreme, particularly in a haunting moment when nobody shows up for parent-teacher night—“welcome parents” futilely written on the board behind Sarah (Hendricks)—exposes the lynchpin of a system that sometimes gives everyone involved more credit than they deserve.
However, as someone with a mom, a mother-in-law and many friends who are teachers, I can’t watch “Detachment” without missing the other side to the story—people who believe in what they do and make progress with kids both motivated and difficult. That’s not what Kaye’s after, though, in a self-indulgent, self-conscious movie featuring animation on a blackboard and other distractions. As Henry takes in Erica (Sami Gayle), a young girl who’s turned to prostitution, the film suggests the need for a two-way street when trying to guide troubled youth. That's pretty dispiriting, considering a guidance counselor’s (Lucy Liu) statement about the ease of indifference and the character required to care. The idea, I guess, is admitting teachers’ limited potential for effectiveness, including when a depressed girl (Betty Kaye) hugs Henry, and Sarah suspects him of inappropriate conduct.
As it turns out, no matter how familiar the character of the hooker with a heart of gold is, the scenes between Henry and Erica achieve the most power in “Detachment.” Because he does care, and Brody expertly depicts someone broken and compassionate, disillusioned and giving. Though the movie doesn’t exactly tap into the teenage experience, Henry respects “the trenches of second period” and thrives on people deserving of his time. This attitude of letting kids decide what they want to learn, the movie suggests with numerous references to “No Child Left Behind,” pretty much guarantees that that’s exactly where many will find themselves.
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