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Tony Kaye’s bleak drama Detachment tells the story of substitute teacher Henry Barthes, and through it examines the lives of teachers and students at a failing New York school. It features two unforgettable performances from Adrien Brody and newcomer Sami Gayle, but the screenplay is underdeveloped, and the lack of a firm focus in its narrative sees it fall short.

Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a substitute teacher who travels from school to school, assiduously avoiding setting down roots or establishing relationships. Arriving at a troubled inner-city school, he becomes entangled in the lives of out of control students and embattled teachers, while on a bus home one evening he meets young prostitute Erica (Sami Gayle), who he decides to help.

Director Tony Kaye styles the narrative with chalkboard animations, tight close ups and a dark palette emphasising the bleakness of the protagonists lives. This, coupled with fine central performances, makes Detachment as gripping as it is depressing. Unfortunately the plot meanders without any clear focus – is this a character study of Henry and Erica, a la Taxi Driver, or social commentary on the state of the US school system? The plight of the teachers, burdened by troubled students, uncooperative parents and unreasonable demands from businessmen and bureaucrats, is illustrated by a star-studded cast, including James Caan, Christina Hendricks and Lucy Liu. Yet they feel underused, with this subsidiary narrative failing to mesh with the main focus on Henry, Erica and one particularly depressed student.

Detachment is dark and depressing, but also captivating, thanks to fine central performances. It’s at its best when it focuses on the relationship between Henry and Erica – Sami Gayle puts in a fine performance as a hooker who Henry seems to reform simply by giving her some orange juice and a sandwich. Unfortunately it is let down by a meandering, underdeveloped plot that lacks a clear focus, message or conclusion. It’s worth a watch, but for a better examination of inner-city schooling, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic, check out 2008 Palme d’Or winner Entre les murs.