Forgive the incidental pun on a cliché, but it’s a sign of the times that when The New York Times awards a film with a Critics’ Pick it tends to be a hallmark of mediocrity and safeness, so fuddy-duddy has the Grey Lady become. Such is the case with Henry-Alex Rubin’s Disconnect, an ensemble piece about cross-connecting lives that is basically the sequel to Paul Haggis’ Best Picture-winner Crash with a far superior soundtrack.
The challenge with ensemble films that aren’t live-action superhero comic books like X-Men or The Avengers is there is no single protagonist, and that’s a dangerous hurdle to place before the audience; you risk disconnection right from the start and will likely spend the rest of the narrative trying to engage the viewer’s wandering emotional alliances. To its credit, Disconnect manages to clear that hurdle. But barely, and not gracefully.
Readers of this site might know the film as being fashion designer Marc Jacobs’ acting debut, playing the pimp for teenaged cam-to-cam porn models. This is perfect, inventive casting; it has been a paradox for a few years now that such an influential arbiter of style it such a seedy character—his association with porn models is long and detailed. He acquits himself admirably in the few scenes he’s in, although it has to be said that the way the film is shot and edited—i.e., handheld, movemented and voyeuristic—covers myriad warts and fuckups in all the performances.
This is regrettably not true for the main ‘teen’ online porn model, Kyle, played by Max Thieriot, one of those good-looking golden actors who is normally an almost ritual sacrifice in horror movies; slaughter the young jock hunk with the perfect body as gruesomely as possible and the geeks shall cheer. He gives perhaps the only performance in the film that is head-on direct to the camera. He has no opportunity to be saved by tricksy angles, cuts and through-the-dirty/rainy-window shots that do cover him later on. Worse, he is breaking the fourth wall between the audience and the actor by looking directly into the camera, and you’d better be some sort of awesome to do that. Thieriot isn’t. This sequence comes early enough, just after the sizzling opening scenes when I was sitting back and saying to myself, “This is going to be great,” that it causes the rest of the film to jump the rails and never settle back in.
Thieriot is twenty-four in real life, but plays seventeen here, which might be believable were he not juxtaposed against real teens in one of the two other parallel stories. It pays to remember that this is more or less the same as a fourteen-year-old playing seven. His way of conveying his teen vulnerability is overly gestural and self-conscious, and from my experience he is nothing like any online cam sex person I’ve ever seen. Yes, I have seen a few, but only out of curiosity similar to the journalist’s who chases after his story in Disconnect; this sort of live online peep show doesn’t turn me on in the least. For a brief moment, I tried to convince a philosophy professor friend who is addicted to Cam4 (the site that is the presumptive basis for the one in the film) to write a provocative piece for us about this growing phenomenon and how it is skirting prostitution laws. I was unsuccessful, and not interested enough to do it myself.
To its further credit, Disconnect is about issues that are germane to the current cultural discourse: how the Internet has fractured our real-life interpersonal connections; how it can invade and shatter our lives through identity theft; modern American parent-teen relationships. All worthy subjects, even if they reminded me of the popular meme “First World Problems,” which features a woman crying over crises that would make the Third World laugh; one of the film’s weaknesses is being overwrought with melodrama, flooded with unnecessary tears, the script landmined with inventive ways to phrase trite lines.
The awfulness of American parent-teen dynamics is hardly unexplored territory in contemporary filmed entertainment. I am deliberately assigning a nationality to the issue because it’s somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy; American teens are expected to become unmanageable brats without a cause, otherwise there’s something wrong with them. It seems almost de rigeur for a parent of young children to express the caveat, “They are such a delight right now. Of course, when they turn thirteen…” And, sure enough, it happens. If this were a phenomenon pervasive to all cultures around the world, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning much less assigning it to our society in particular, but it isn’t. I remember my own father telling me when I was prepubescent, “One day you will rebel against me, and that is a good thing because it’s what you should do.” Naturally, when I hit thirteen I opened my mouth and pretty much haven’t stop screaming at my parents since.
The parent-teen meltdown story centers around an archetypal friendless emo high-school sophomore, Ben (Jonah Bobo), who is duped into taking a picture of himself naked by male classmates posing online as a girl interested in him, with tragic consequences. Jason Bateman plays Ben’s lawyer father, Rich, in one of the finer performances of the film. The other two stories are about a ‘normal’ middle-class couple, abnormally cast with the improbably gorgeous Alexander Skarsgaard and Paula Patton, whose lives are hacked by an online identity thief, and the aforementioned cam-to-cam porn teen and his relationship the unscrupulous journalist who will stop at nothing for a scoop. The three plots are believably woven together in an unforced way, and form a cohesive whole that is a meaningful exploration of modern American life.
That the emo teen listens to Icelandic wailers Sigur Rós is fitting, and their plaintive sound informs the entire film, not just rest of the soundtrack by Max Richter, which I would highly recommend listening to outside of the film; it’s a lot like what is currently wafting from the speakers in my apartment on any given evening.
As for the camerawork and the rest of the production, as a film student said to me a few minutes ago, “It’s so easy to get great shots these days with the cameras out there. It’s the drama that is most important. If you don’t have that…” There is no lack of drama in Disconnect, quite the contrary, but it is crippled by a stubborn lack of subtlety, which is a cautionary tale for me as I venture into production on my own upcoming film, an equally intense drama.
The premises of all three plots are sturdy enough that at times they made me uncomfortable, a good thing; these days, other than the aforementioned young filmmaker in the next room editing his short, whom I met on an online dating site, the person who knows most about my life on a day-to-day basis is a twenty-year-old in northern California I’ve never met face to face. I text with him several times a day, or we connect in the chat room where we first met. Coming out of the theater, I got a rush of paranoia about him (totally unfounded), which says something about the effect Disconnect had on me.
As of this review, we are ditching the ratings system; Eric Baker doesn’t want them any more, and they tend to be the tool of critics I don’t admire, with all due respect to the late Roger Ebert. Suffice to say that I think Rubin has pulled off an ambitious feat, the film is well crafted and interesting, but I don’t agree with the Grey Lady and her picks.