I’ve read a lot about Disconnect being a rant against the Evil Empire of Digital that instead of bringing us together really does the opposite. What a bore that movie would be. Not to mention so last century. But here’s the thing: Disconnect is not that movie. It’s 2013: A Cyperspace Odyssey, a techno-thriller driven by genuine feeling. First-time feature director Henry Alex Rubin, working from a script by Andrew Stern, sees social media as a fact of life, like sex, drugs and rock & roll. The tools of cyberspace – smartphone, laptop or Facebook profile – aren’t new – they’ve just permeated every aspect of our existence. It’s how we use or misuse them that speaks to character. The Internet sure as hell can connect us, if we let it. Emotional engagement is our job. Always has been. And nothing about it is digital. Rubin has crafted a human drama that vibrates with ferocity and feeling. Like Traffic, Crash and Babel before it, Disconnect tells several interlocking stories.
New York lawyer Rich Boyd (Jason Bateman) and his wife Lydia (Hope Davis) are raising two teens in the burbs. Daughter Abby (Haley) is popular, with little patience for her loner brother, Ben (Jonah Bobo). That makes Ben vulnerable to a nasty cyberprank, reminiscent of the one in Catfish, in which two classmates pretend to be a girl liking Ben on Facebook. The tragic result leads to Rich trying to track down the cyberbullies. Ironically, it’s the Internet that brings him closer to his son, through the music Ben recorded online, and the roots of the crime.
Derek Hull (an outstanding Alexander Skarsgard), a former marine, and his wife Cindy (Paula Patton) react to the loss of their child by looking for solace outside themselves. Cindy on a bereavement chatroom and Derek on a mission to find the culprit who made them victims of identity theft. When a cyber-detective (Frank Grillo) confronts them with their Internet histories, the effect is devastating and also a crucial link in reconnecting them. Even the detective has much to learn about his own teen son (the excellent Colin Ford) and the Web.
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TV reporter Nina Dunham (a stellar Andrea Riseborough) hopes to make a name for herself by telling the story of Kyle (Max Thieriot), an underage online sex worker working for a cyper-pimp strongly played by—of all people—fashion designer Marc Jacobs. “Can we just talk?” Nina asks Kyle over Skype. But the circumstances that bring them face to face create the real connection.
Rubin, who distinguished himself in non-fiction films, notably 2005’s Oscar-nominated Murderball, about quadriplegics playing rugby in wheelchairs, scores a terrific debut in features. With the help of the gifted cinematographer Ken Seng, he brings a documentarian’s precision to each scene and his own keen instinct for reality and nuance. How a new director works with actors is telling, and the performances in Disconnect are first-rate all the way. Bateman, in a rare dramatic role, is just tremendous, finding depths of emotion where they’re least expected. Disconnect works they same way. Even when it trips on its ambitions, it hits home.