Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Under The Radar Films: Disconnect

With so many ways to consumer films both old and new these days, it isn't uncommon for some worthy movies to slip under the radar.  Whether they are released in limited theaters, on demand, or both, it is much easier these days to miss out on some impacting pictures.  Such is the case with Disconnect, a small film with large aspirations and a story that is tragically timely.  In the same vein as films like Crash, Disconnect deals with multiple narratives weaving their way into one another, however casually, while shining a spotlight on the very real and very damaging issue of internet bullying and exploitation.  I didn't expect much going into the film, but was blown away by the raw emotion on display, the performances, and the willingness of the film to not take the easy way out of situations that could most certainly fall into the routine.

The central story of Disconnect focuses on a seemingly normal family with all of the distractions of work and technology we all have in our lives.  The father, Rich (Jason Bateman, an underrated dramatic actor), is a busy lawyer who loves his kids but allows his work to stay in the way.  His wife, Lydia, is played sparingly by Hope Davis.  They have two children, a teenage daughter and a younger teen son, Ben (Jonah Bobo) who becomes the focus of this tragic tale.  Ben is like many teenage boys, awkward and quiet, consumed by his music and a loner in the halls of his school.  Naturally, Ben's "different-ness" catches the eye of two hateful boys in his class.  But instead of bullying him in the halls the two boys take a route of bullying and cruelty all too familiar these days; they go to the internet.  They use Facebook to create a fake account of a young girl and begin flirting and luring Ben into a trap.

Our second narrative revolves around a reporter, Nina Dunham, played by Andrea Riseborough.  Nina is an investigative journalist who catches sight of an online sex website where young men perform favors on camera for those willing to pay on the other end.  She meets and reaches out to Kyle, one of the young men, and urges him to tell his story on a special report with his identity kept secret.  He agrees, and his report begins to upset things within his group and draws the attention of the FBI.  All the while, an odd flirtation grows between Nina and Kyle.

The third story involves Derek and Cindy Hull, played by Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton, as a married couple dealing in their own individual ways with the death of their young son.  Cindy reaches out to people in a chat group online, developing a relationship with one man in particular, while Derek's grief sinks inward and he disappears from Cindy in life.  Derek is struggling at work and Cindy is lost at home, so when their identity is stolen and their bank accounts hacked, the devastation cripples their lives.  They hire a private investigator, Mike Dixon (Frank Grillo) to find out who did this.  Mike also happens to be the father of one of the boys responsible for bullying young Ben, and causing a tragic event that unravels the family in our central story.

All of these stories are given their own time and focus, and the balancing act by director Henry Alex Rubin and writer Andrew Stern keeps things afloat.  While the story of the Ben and his family takes center stage, the narrative finds easy and unforced ways of weaving these tales together.  As I mentioned there is a tragedy that is the focus of the picture, but in each of these stories there is tragedy and misfortune.  What weaves these stories together even more than characters and situations is the human condition and the way we retreat into the internet to find help.  As the title suggests, there is a disconnect between us all these days, and that is the thesis of the screenplay.  More often than not, there are people around us we can go to, but perhaps not as easily as we can find chat rooms and online relationships.

All of the performances are compelling in their own right, no matter how big or small.  Jonah Bobo is compelling and painfully lost as Ben, and as his father Bateman's obsessive search for what happened to his son takes him into deep, dark emotional places.  This is a film which feels important, something to show teenagers these days so they might be able to understand the damage they can cause from a distance.   There are interesting twists and turns in the story, and not everything ends as one would expect from films of this ilk.  Too often, these films with large casts of interwoven stories crumble under the weight of derivative narration and easy ways out.  Look no further than Crash, the Paul Haggis Oscar winner that has aged poorly with its stereotypes and cliches.  Disconnect is fresh and inventive and timely, which isn't necessarily a good thing when you consider the story.