Detachment: An Impressionist’s Portrait Of American Education

A promotional poster for the film "Detachment".

A promotional poster for the film “Detachment”.

In a market flooded with faux teenage programming, often presenting high school life as if it were a club scene populated by 20-somethings (see Beverly Hills 90210), or a fantastical feel-good story where all students love to sing (and can sing well) and gain acceptance for it (see Glee or Highschool Musical), it is refreshing to see a film that disposes with such farce.  Detachment is perhaps not any more authentic than these other works, but it presents a different side of the high school experience, one that does not romanticize. While pessimistic, it uses an Impressionistic method to show how painful that experience can be.  What is perhaps most refreshing about the film is that it doesn’t focus on teenagers, but on adults.  In many dramas, teens are written by adults who project a character that comes across as inauthentic.  Here, that attempt is dropped in favour of developing interesting adult characters who operate in a school where, even with the best intentions, failure is more common than success. The weight of that failure can be devastating.


An Impressionist painting by Rene Magritte.  Like Impressionist works, "Detachment" is not a documentary, but rather an artistic creation meant to challenge how we see the world around us.

An Impressionist painting by Rene Magritte. Like Impressionist works, “Detachment” is not a documentary, but rather an artistic creation meant to challenge how we see the world around us.

In reading reviews for the film, it seems that some viewers take issue with its authenticity.  This is an unfair criticism.  Nobody takes issue with the fact that Monet or Renoir, or Dali or Magritte, or Picasso or van Gogh painted pictures that are not ‘authentic’.  These artists challenge the way we view things and show us a scene from a different perspective.  They challenge us to look at the world in a new way and to focus on angles previously overlooked.  This is what Detachment does.  It is the antithesis to American Pie or Head Of The Class.  If one is going to take the movie apart based on its lack of complete authenticity, then one is simply being unfair to the work and not looking at it with the right perspective.


So how does the film work?  The plot follows a substitute teacher, Henry Barthes (played by Adrien Brody) who teaches in the public school system.  He is an enigmatic character who is overwhelmed with pain and, despite what the title suggests, is not detached in the least.  He is very connected to the world around him, but he recognizes the pain that will follow and attempts to lessen it in whatever way he can for others, if not for himself. This theme plays out across a series of relationships that Barthes develops with others. Most notable is his attachment to a teen prostitute named Erica (played with subtle and poetic efficiency by Sami

Sami Gayle, who plays Erica in "Detachment".

Sami Gayle, who plays Erica in “Detachment”.

Gayle).  When Barthes witnesses Erica objectified and abused, he refuses to take part in this exploitation, despite her insistence that he do so.  He eventually offers her a place to stay, but we can see that his kindness will and does inspire a romantic love in Erica that Barthes will not return, perhaps because he is incapable of such love, or perhaps because he knows that indulging in such feelings will be counterproductive to her growth.  We see the tragedy of the relationship before it happens, but we know that whatever tragedy unfolds as a result will be less painful than the path Erica was n already.  There is no way for Barthes to help her without hurting her.  What has caused this young woman, who is perhaps no older than 14, to be compelled to participate in such a life?  We see no evidence of drug use, nor are there allusions to abuse other than a rape which we may assume was committed by an unknown assailant.  We don’t know.  Barthes does not pry, and so we do not find out.  We might, though, fairly assume that Barthes projects his mother’s suffering onto the girl and that protecting her is a way for Barthes to ease his own guilt regarding his mother’s pain.


Adrien Brody as Henry Barthes in "Detachment".

Adrien Brody as Henry Barthes in “Detachment”.

This guilt is perhaps manifest in Barthes because he has taken it upon himself to care for the man who caused his mother such grief that she took her own life.  Barthes’s grandfather, who is in all likelihood also his father, is suffering from dementia and is near death, and Barthes takes care of him.  In a painful scene, Barthes absolves the villain of his sins whilst adopting his mother’s voice.  Barthes’ loyalty is complicated.  He recognizes his grandfather as the cause of his mother’s suicide, but still has compassion for him.  There is depth in this scene, which Brody brings out in his performance.


Christina Hendricks, who plays Sarah Madison in "Detachment".

Christina Hendricks, who plays Sarah Madison in “Detachment”.

These relationships are juxtaposed with other relationships Barthes engages in, one with fellow teacher Sarah Madison (played by the stunning and talented Christina Hendricks).  In a deftly edited and written scene we see that a meal shared by the two is dominated by Madison’s ramblings, while Barthes listens patiently.  When Madison turns the conversation to Barthes, the evening is abruptly ended.  It is Madison who reaches out overtly.  She leans across her car to offer a kiss to a passive recipient, who follows through with no passion of his own.  We do not get the feeling that he is disinterested, only that he is cautious, and it is a caution that Madison doesn’t understand.  This becomes clear later in the film when Barthes, who has been approached by a female student in his class while he sits alone, embraces her in a hug as she is struggling emotively.  Madison walks in on the embrace, causing the girl to run out of the room crying. Rather than offer Barthes her empathy, she speaks to him in an accusatory tone, reprimanding him for being alone with a student in a classroom. She seems to draw no connection to an earlier scene, where Barthes walked in on Madison whilst she was alone with a male student.  He makes no suggestions as to the appropriateness of her situation and recognizes that Madison is simply doing what she can to facilitate her students, development.  Madison, perhaps confused as to Barthes’ lack of initiative with her, fails to offer Barthes the same support and assumes something is wrong with his behaviour. It is another example of how there is no right way for Barthes, or teachers in general, to help facilitate the growth of a student.  Refusing to console the student furthers their alienation, while being emotively supportive of students leads to accusations of inappropriate conduct.


The beautiful and talented Lucy Liu, who plays Dr. Doris Parker in "Detachment".

The beautiful and talented Lucy Liu, who plays Dr. Doris Parker in “Detachment”.

There are other interactions with students and staff that are intriguing.  Charles Seabolt (played by James Caan), has a scene where he addresses a student’s dress.  It is a humourous scene that demonstrates how youth fail to recognize the way others might perceive them. In it, Seabolt uses a brilliant juxtaposition to encourage students to understand how the way in which they project themselves impacts how others see and respond to them.  This comical scene is contrasted with a more dramatic encounter, where a young girl who has utterly failed to put any effort into academics boasts to guidance counselor Dr. Doris Parker (portrayed by Lucy Liu) that she will become a model and join a band.  Parker loses it, warning the girl that her lack of ambition will ensure her failure both at as a model as a musician, while her most important talent will become “getting men to fuck ” her. Parker proceeds to tell her that her “life will become a carnival of pain”.  It is tough love at its finest/worst.  These scenes work great in juxtaposition because they are perhaps equally inappropriate (Seabolt shows a student an image of a gonorrhea-infected vagina), and both serve to display the disillusionment of the teens. But the two scenes are also drastically different emotively, one comic and one tragic.  I don’t think they are meant to reflect how professionals in such situations really interact with students, but rather how they might need to interact with some of them in order to truly communicate with them.




Christina Hendricks

Christina Hendricks

Such drastic outbursts aren’t only present among the teachers, but also among the students.  One girl threatens to have her friends, whom she refers to using a racial slur, gang rape Madison, before spitting on her.  When the student is expelled, she returns to school with her mother in tow, shouting that Madison is racist and angrily questioning why she has been expelled.  A student threatens to beat up Barthes, who coolly defuses the situation, while another has his father call the school to explain that his assaulting another student was the result of his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which the parent claims was not accommodated properly by the school, resulting in the abusive behaviour.  The parent’s suggestion?  These actions require his son be rewarded with a new laptop.  On Parent/Teacher night, the parents fail to show up.  This is another instance of the Impressionist technique that director Tony Kaye uses.  Does it suggest that the parents are to blame?  Yes.  It does.  But I doubt this scene is meant to be taken literally.  This scene is the expression of an impression.  The teens that are struggling, and that are failing, don’t have the support needed to succeed.  While the successes are perhaps underrepresented, it is the failures that no doubt weigh on educators the most, and it is in these failures that they receive the least help from parents.

Claude Monet, perhaps the most famous of all Impressionists, used methods not dissimilar to those used by Tony Kaye in "Detachment".

Claude Monet, perhaps the most famous of all Impressionists, used methods not dissimilar to those used by Tony Kaye in “Detachment”.

This Impressionistic approach is peppered throughout the film.  There is a scene where Barthes is reading to an empty class with the tables overturned.  A photo taken by a student shows Barthes faceless, with an empty classroom in the background.  In a silent shot, the principal, (played by Marcia Gay Harden) is dressed in a red outfit that causes her to blend with the lockers behind her, creating the impression that she is one with the school and defined by it.  It is clear from this imagery that the director is signalling the viewer to recognize that this film is not meant to be a documentary, but rather an Impressionist piece meant to encourage the viewer to look at the education system through its failures so that they might understand the gravity of the struggle.


Christina Hendricks, who is beautiful from every angle, though not all of them are represented in "Detachment".

Christina Hendricks, who is beautiful from every angle, though not all of them are represented in “Detachment”.

There is no mention of the private sector, but its existence looms over the film.  The film shows what contemporary segregation looks like.  One might see the film as a poor example of segregation, since the population of the school seems to be largely Caucasian, but contemporary segregation has nothing to do with what was referred to as racial segregation in the 60’s and 70’s.  Contemporary segregation is based on economics.  It is the working class that is segregated from the ruling class.  The people who cannot afford private school do not always share a common skin colour with others, but they do share a common economic situation.  Their children will not be given the same quality education as the children of wealthy or middle class Americans, and in turn, they will not have access to the same opportunities.


The film is a masterpiece.  It leaves questions and offers no answers, just observations left for the viewer to sort out.  It shows us the flawed system and not only encourages us to recognize it, but tells us that we already recognize it and that we are simply ignoring it by choice because that is the easier option.  The system is not as

Did I mention that Christina Hendricks was in this film?

Did I mention that Christina Hendricks was in this film?

overwhelmingly desperate as the film makes it out to be, but it is that overwhelmingly desperate for those failed by the system, and for all the same reasons that the film lays out.  It is not an essay as to why the system is wrong though.  It tells the story through compelling characters who are interesting and sympathetic.  One of the closing sequences, where Barthes visits Erica as a foster care facility may seem outwardly optimistic.  The two are smiling, the facility looks welcoming and the sun is out, but the scene is also preceded by phone call from a clinic telling Barthes that Erica’s HIV test results are in.  It is an ominous voice, not optimistic.  The results are not articulated and at the end of the film we are not told the answer to this question, but we see there is pain present in Barthes’ face as he approaches Erica.  He may or may not know the results, but whatever the results might be, moving forward will not be easy.  It is a parallel with the education system.  The final scene is Barthes reading from ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ by Edgar Allen Poe, and we get the sense that the education system, like the House of Usher, is a dilapidated ruin, at least for the people who the system fails.



Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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