Adrien Brody deserves superlatives for his acting in the alternately mesmerizing and maddening Detachment. Playing Henry Barthes, a high school substitute teacher trying to shield himself from the toxicity of the public-school system, Brody meets every challenge in a demanding role.
Carl Lund's screenplay brims over with people on the edge. Principal Carol Dearden (an outstanding Marcia Gay Harden) is badgered by officials who see her school simply as real estate. As a guidance counselor (a vivid Lucy Liu) and a teacher (Tim Blake Nelson) near meltdown, Henry wrestles with his own issues: a dying grandfather (Louis Zorich) and a teen prostitute (Sami Gayle) he offers to shelter. Like an overweight student (Betty Kaye, daughter of the director, Tony Kaye) unable to cope with abuse, Henry wants to run away.
It's a pileup of horrors, and director Kaye does little to lighten the burden. You remember Kaye? He's the former advertising legend who directed the killer-good American History X and then begged to have his name axed from the credits. He's the guy who bought ads to declare himself the "greatest English director since Hitchcock" and was known to dress up as Osama bin Laden. The thing is, Kaye is an enormous talent. And Detachment proves it, even with the overload of tricks that take us out of the story with animation, documentary-type interviews with teachers, and literary references that are both potent and posturing. Yet with Brody at the eye of the storm, Detachment gets to you. It hits hard.