This one spells it out pretty clear with the line "Henry Barthes is all of us"... its hard to grasp how the realization that we are indeed all the same can be so painful.
On the surface "Detachment" deals with the crumbling American education system through the eyes of substitute teacher Henry Barthes (played by Adrian Brody) who starts a new assignment in a new school with new teachers, in a new class with new pupils like he is obviously used to.
The beginning shows him trying to get into this new class around the bullies threatening him and other pupils, making it hard to teach anything. At first it looks like all those "good teacher turns around a bad class" movies but its not. You soon realize that the school is just the backdrop for a larger story about a teacher who tries to do his job by taking a role outside the play. Barthes makes clear that he is hollow and words can't hurt him which is his way of coping with a hopeless situation by neglecting his private life and detaching from the world. Like him every teacher seems to have developed his individual coping mechanism. For some its cynicism and dark humor, "happy pills" are regularly mentioned too and for others its just swallowing their emotions until they erupt. You see the teachers coping with their daily routine while hearing an answering machine in the background every now and then with other teachers resigning or parents shouting for better grades for their kids.
Its pretty tough stuff seeing kids void of hope, interest or enthusiasm and teachers trying to get to the few who are still to be reached in the classroom. But its here where it all falls apart because of hollow politics, parents that do not care or are just as dysfunctional as the kids they raised and dropped into the public education system and idiotic social rules and conventions we are all used to. When you see the pattern in all the peoples private lives and their desperate tries of holding on its obvious that "Detachment" is not just about the public school system but about our whole society, about each and every one of us.
When Barthes meets a young street hooker he decides to take her in with him and do his job outside school. Its quite heartbreaking to see him trying to make a change against all odds. At times Barthes comes across like a modern day Jesus when he sleeps on the floor of his small apartment and lets the girl sleep in bed. Some might say that "Detachment" is too light on the teachers because most of the blame falls onto parents and politicians. There is hardly an unsympathetic teacher in this movie. Yet there are scenes that show Barthes is no Jesus at all... like when he violently shouts at a nurse in a retirement home after an incident with his dying grandfather. Barthes is indeed like all of us, cracking when he struggles to cope and lashing out to get out the pressure, just like the parents at school push their pressure to the teachers.
And this is where the detachment cracks... amidst all the failures Barthes manages to connect to the girl, as well as to an outcast girl at school. And he connects through emotion and personal attachment but soon has to realize that it does not work. The scenes of him sending away the girl to a foster home when he tells her he cannot be her family or when he has do send away the outcast girl when she tries to share her sorrow with him are gut-wrenching. There are so many honest and deeply emotional scenes in this movie its hard to keep track. His grandfathers death with his total forgiving, Barthes monologues trying to make the pupils understand why they need basic education for their own sake are as brilliant as Lucy Lius Characters breakdown in which she shouts out her desperation and sadness towards a seemingly not caring girl.
The relationship between Barthes and the girl is stunning and constantly rocked by misunderstandings... plain because you don't expect it to be non-sexual with all the pedophile stories, sexual harassment laws and stereotypes. But against all odds it is and you realize that when there are no parents (like in the haunting "parents night" scenes with teachers waiting and no one coming) someone else must fill this void... how empty have we become that we cannot expect someone to help out of honest interest for his fellow man... or rather child?!
"Detachment" is a bleak and painful movie but it has some hope and even some humor (the cynic teachers way of teaching a girl about the dangers of STD with a picture of a rainbow and a picture of a disease ridden vagina is one of those much needed lighter moments).
Its like when Barthes says in one of his many off commentaries... life is an ocean of chaos and the realization that you are the one supposed to throw the buoy while struggling to stay afloat is devastating. But its the honesty about his own struggle that makes him connect with others. Its when they realize we indeed are all the same, all struggling and they are not alone in their strife that gives them their humanity. But thats what life is... so what can you do but be honest and hope for the best.... Its all going to be OK!