Depressing Existentialist Teacher Movie Part I

Originally published by AMERICANSCAPEGOAT.COM

February 16, 2015

Disclaimer: This review makes no attempt to summarize the reviewed film’s plot.  Key plot details have been ignored.

DALLAS, Texas (AS) – Back in July, I mentioned plans for investing a few of the allegedly endless hours of free time with which society has graced me as an educator in embarking on a journey of discovery through a personal exploration of one of the least respected art forms in all of recorded human history: the teacher film genre.  The display of hubris in boasting of being a public servant with leisure time did not go unpunished.  Only a matter of hours after watching The Dead Poets Society on Netflix DVD, my motor vehicle was totaled in a low-speed freeway accident by an unlicensed teenaged driver.  Not only did I fail to seize that summer day, the following months were wrenched from my grasp as life became a hamster wheel of routine that had me running in an endless loop driven by the demands of physical therapy and work.

By the time the wheel slowed to a manageable pace, the dead poets had long since made their way back to the Netflix shipping hub in Irving, Texas.  It was time to move on to something new, and I was willing to take whatever low-hanging fruit Netflix happened to be streaming, which is how I found myself spending a late evening watching Detachment, an indie flick starring Adrien Brody.Unaware that the film was the work of the director of American History X, I settled in on the couch expecting to see a predictable feel-good tale in which Adrien Brody’s intensely sorrowful eyes broke through the protective barriers put up by hardened at-risk students, allowing him to form human connections that created an opening through which fresh outside-the-box lessons that led to high levels of student engagement could be delivered.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

An Albert Camus quote at the opening of the film served as a warning that it was unlikely that the viewer was going to be treated to an uplifting message of hope.  This was an existential teacher movie.  It couldn’t end with a group of disadvantaged kids beating the odds by passing their AP calculus tests or becoming spelling bee champions.  This movie aimed to get its hands dirty by serving up a view of a shared manmade hell where both students and teachers endured degrading experiences that stripped them of their dignity and forced them to come to terms with the harsh reality that they had limited power to affect positive change in an indifferent universe.

While likely unintended, the manner in which the film portrays this last detail is reminiscent of the famous contemporary parable of the boy and the starfish.  In the story, a boy and his grandfather walk along a beach that is littered with stranded starfish.  Moved to take action, the boy starts throwing starfish after starfish back into the sea.  The grandfather, unable to comprehend the purpose of such a seemingly futile act, questions the boy about his actions, noting that, in the grand scheme of things, his actions could make no difference.  Undaunted by his grandfather’s callousness, the boy picks up a single starfish and tosses it back into the sea.  “I made a difference to that one,” the boy responds.

Adrien Brody’s character, the long-term substitute teacher Henry Barthes, begins the film narrative with a detached view of life, much like the grandfather in the starfish parable.  As the film progresses, Henry’s eyes are opened as he begins to form connections to the humanity that surrounds him.  He weeps as he realizes that the at-risk children in his classroom are like the helpless starfish on the beach, and he is overcome by the realization that, although it is not too late to save them, most of them will not be saved.  Henry tries his best to save his students in the limited time that he has with them, but in the existential telling of the parable, the boy discovers that saving others isn’t as easy as tossing starfish into the sea.

As a work of art, this movie was an awful mess, fully deserving of the public derision that it received from Bryan Cranston, the acclaimed star of Malcom in the Middle, who played the small role of the cruel, perverse, and unsupportive husband of the film’s embattled high school principal.  With one transcendent moment of exception, Detachment was a clumsy, crude, and vulgar work that is not worth any viewer’s time.

The transcendent moment in the film will be explored in the second installment of this review.