"And never have I felt so deeply at one and at the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world." This extremely poignant quote from Albert Camus is the preface for British director Tony Kaye's (of American History X fame) Detachment. The sentiment of this quote sets in motion a series of real life interviews with teachers before segueing into the melancholic story of a substitute named Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody).
Henry's aloofness is ideal for a profession as a substitute teacher. Going into each assignment knowing that he has to make as little commitment as possible is the perfect setup for Henry, who has been grappling with the suicide of his mother ever since it happened when he was seven years old. From the second he walks into his latest classroom, it is clear that the only person with a vested interest in learning is a troubled, overweight girl named Meredith (Betty Kaye). Otherwise, Henry is faced with a roomful of surly and combative youths. It is Queens, after all. You'd be surly and combative too.
When Henry isn't riding the bus or attempting to maintain order in his classroom, he visits his dying grandfather in an assisted living home. This task is never made easy for Henry being that his grandfather constantly mistakes him for his mother. On the way back from coercing him to come out of that bathroom one night, Henry encounters a teenage prostitute named Erica (Sami Gayle, who is about to take the film industry by storm) on the bus. As she gives an old man a blow job and demands her money, Henry lets tears stream down his face. After the old man smacks Erica and refuses to pay her, she follows Henry off the bus.
As she harasses Henry, he finally snaps at her, saying, "You've been fucked and thrown away so many times, you've gotten used to it." Ultimately, Henry takes her in and forces her to get an HIV test, just one in a series of good deeds he performs in spite of being "hollow" inside. He also begins a dalliance with Ms. Madison, another teacher, who can sense his gradual willingness to open up to someone.
In the meantime, the school's principal, Carol (Marcia Gay Harden, in a typically subdued role), is being forced out of her position by the superintendent, who is looking for someone to lay the blame on over the student body's poor test scores. Other supporting roles include Lucy Liu as guidance counselor Dr. Parker, Blythe Danner as Ms. Perkins, Bryan Cranston as Richard, Carol's husband, Tim Blake Nelson as Mr. Wiatt, the most put upon of all the teachers, and James Caan as Mr. Seaboldt, the teacher who provides the most comic relief during the film (in particular, a scene in which he shows a female student wearing no bra a picture of a sunset followed by a picture of a vagina infected with gonorrhea, insisting that is what will happen to her if she continues to walk around the school dressed as she is).
While some might argue that Detachment tries to cover too much ground in its one hour and forty minute span, Carl Lund's script is structured in such a way that everything intertwines in the end. Paired with Kaye's directorial prowess in interpreting Lund's script (e.g. a scene where Henry's face is completely blurred as he tells Ms. Madison that he is not really there), Detachment shows that Lund will continue to exhibit great promise in the echelon of screenwriters who have received incredible resources for their debut script (Diablo Cody comes to mind).