Disconnect (United States, 2012)

April 12, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Disconnect Poster

Disconnect, Henry Alex Rubin's meditation on how we communicate in the age of electronics and social media, is a deeply flawed motion picture containing moments of brilliance that illustrate its strong thematic content. A triptych of tales connected more by ideas and location than by characters (two individuals briefly wander out of "their" story and into one of the others), Disconnect is by turns frustrating and fascinating.

Interpersonal interaction used to be so easy. You'd walk outside and chat with the guy next door. When someone was new to the neighborhood, you'd bake a bunt cake or a plate of cookies and hand-deliver them. You'd call grandma and grandpa once a week to see how they were doing. You'd hang out with friends before and after school. Today, though, it's all different. Different doesn't mean bad, but the old rules don't apply. People have friends and lovers they've never met face-to-face. Comfort can come in the form of an anonymous instant message. Bullying can be accomplished by the click of a send key. Interactive porn requires little more than a webcam. And, when we find a like-minded "girlfriend," there's no guarantee she's who she represents herself to be. Just ask Manti Te'o.

The most emotionally potent of Disconnect's three narrative branches involves high school loner Ben Boyd (Jonah Bobo), who becomes the victim of a prank pulled by two classmates: Jason (Colin Ford) and Frye (Avaid Bernstein). On-line, they pose as a girl named "Jessica" and make contact with Ben. Soon, he's having meaningful chats with "her." She sends him a naked picture (a random shot selected by his tormentors) and challenges him to reciprocate. Much to Jason and Frye's surprise, he does. They respond by doing the expected: mass-mailing it to everyone at school. The rest of the story focuses on Ben's parents, Rich (Jason Bateman) and Lydia (Hope Davis), reacting to their son's predicament. While carrying out an amateur investigation, Rich becomes aware of how much distance exists between him and his son - how little he actually knows and understands the quiet, long-haired boy who sits across the dinner table from him. This segment becomes about fathers and sons and how easy it is for the lines of communication between them to break down.

Story #2 starts out with an attractive TV reporter, Nina Dunham (Andrea Riseborough), logging into a private chatroom with a porn cam-guy, Kyle (Max Thierot). He's flabbergasted when she claims she just wants to talk - no ogling him naked or watching him masturbate. Having pitched a story about researching this lifestyle to her editor, she wants Kyle to agree to an on-camera interview (with his face in shadow and his voice altered). Although initially reluctant, he eventually agrees, believing that Nina cares about him and his future. Once the piece has aired and receives national exposure, the FBI swoops in and the story becomes about who's exploiting whom and whether Nina's supposed good intentions have simply made things worse for one homeless boy.

Finally, we meet husband and wife Derek and Cindy Hull (Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton), a couple paralyzed by the recent death of their toddler son. She tries to communicate with him but he's unresponsive. His refuge is on-line gambling. Hers is a support chat group, where she "befriends" an anonymous man (Michael Nyqvist) who is coping with the death of his wife. When the Hulls' identities are stolen, Derek hires a detective (Frank Grillo) to locate the perpetrator. Then, learning that the police won't act without incontrovertible proof, he and Cindy get in a car and drive out to the address of the alleged thief with the intention of confronting him.

The strongest of the three stories is the one about cyberbullying and its impacts. It does a good job developing multiple characters and angles and doesn't go for the "easy" approach of demonizing the bully. In fact, there's an element of poignancy in the chats between Ben and "Jessica," with the latter taking elements from Jason's own life (the death of his mother, the dictatorial approach of his father) and applying them to his female alter-ego.

The cam-sex story is more about the responsibilities of a reporter than it is about electronic communication, although it uses cam-sex, a thriving global industry, as its backdrop. The segment doesn't preach, asking legitimate questions like whether it's better for a 15-year old runaway to be homeless in New York or to have a warm place to crash, a full belly, and the ability to make some money by taking off his clothing off. Toward the end, however, it becomes muddled and the last few scenes are unconvincing.

The Derek/Cindy segment never really works, although the backstory is infused with emotional pain that the actors effectively convey. Overall, however, it feels contrived and the surprise revelation lacks impact. This one feels more like filler than anything else. There are a few moments that click, such as when Cindy pours out her sorrow to her on-line friend, but little about this episode gels.

For director Henry Alex Rubin, working from a screenplay by Andrew Stern, this is a long way from his previous effort, the documentary Murderball. Rubin does a good job stitching together the stories and highlighting the thematic similarities. His use of captions for chat conversations emphasizes how important the voiceless words-on-screen world has become in communication. The only misstep evident in Rubin's approach is his use of slow-motion at a critical juncture - it's obvious, distracting, and calls attention to a directorial "flourish."

The acting is good across the board, although special note should be made of Jonah Bobo, whose Ben feels tragically real, and Jason Bateman, who steps away from the light roles with which he is usually associated to provide a powerful portrait of a father who has failed in ways he never suspected. Max Thieriot captures the brashness of a guy who lets it all hang out on a cam for money. And Colin Ford shows the damaged side to a character who does some despicable things.

Although there are narrative issues with at least two of the three stories in Disconnect, the movie got its hooks into me. Its message isn't ground-breaking but it crystalizes concerns that many people have about living in a world where interpersonal communication often becomes impersonal communication. Due in large part to its smaller ensemble cast and a resistance to littering the landscape with coincidences, Disconnect lacks the artificial feel that at times hurt Paul Haggis' Oscar winning Crash, a film to which this will be compared. Disconnect's non-judgmental approach to its subject matter makes it more thought-provoking than would likely be the case with a less evenhanded movie.

Disconnect (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2013-04-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content, Nudity, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1