There are, on occasion, films that are so achingly sad that they sit on your heart and pull out this silky depression that both inspires and subdues. These films are rare because they manage to balance the grim reality of the subject matter with a tastefully effective artistry, and require little to no blood and guts violence. But, rather than acting as moments meant to suck you into a pit of despair, they act as conductors for the electricity of life. They are so gloomy that they are using reverse-psychology to inspire the viewers to reconsider their approach to life.
For example, “Detachment” (2011) has the potential to make nihilism sound optimistic. Director Tony Kaye and lead actor Adrien Brody build on the harsh truths of public education through the eyes of the underpaid, underappreciated substitute teacher. Henry Barthes (Brody), the substitute teacher for an abandoned English class, slowly reveals his unspoken torments through quiet and poetic narration, resilient compassion, and a profound passivity. Barthes finds a young prostitute, Erica (Sami Gayle), and expresses this compassion by giving her a safe place to stay, food to eat, and medical attention. In the mean time, combative students, a looming loneliness, and the unsavory memories of his now-senile grandfather bully Barthes into a quiet submission, yet he is unwilling to give up and in to the depression that he undoubtedly feels. With a resolute intolerance for violence, Barthes attempts to teach his students to think independently and to survive the brutality of a reality forced upon them.
Beware, there is a significant (read: overwhelming) amount of pessimism in “Detachment,” so if the darker side of the emotional spectrum easily sways you, this film might not be for you. Kaye does not hold back on the heartache; there is a never-ending supply of struggle, be it through difficult and disinterested students, crude and brutish teachers, stifling isolation, traumatic flashbacks, neglect, suicide, rape, hunger, dirtiness… But let me be clear — Kaye is not simply spouting off “oh woe is I! Take pity and always feel this pain!”
I say this for two reasons. First of all, Kaye asserts that despite the awful shit in life, there is still a tendency in human nature for us to help each other in any way possible. Barthes does this by fostering a prostitute; the teachers of the high school do this by the very act of teaching and putting up with the abuse from students and their parents. There is profound nobility in that tendency, no matter how much of the ugly junk covers it up. Second of all, the unwillingness to bend in the face of death, abuse and hatred far outshines the decay and destruction of life (e.g. Barthes, the grandson of an abusive man and the son of an abused mother, continued to visit his grandfather, care for a prostitute, and educate a bunch of bored teens). While this seems like a stretch, it’s important to remember that when everything in life points to the negative, Life is probably trying to suggest the opposite by embedding in our spirits a resilient desire to endure.
So, regardless of the darkness, “Detachment” is a poignantly inspirational film when viewed through the right lens, without the cheesy and off-putting one-liner quotes.