All words: Toni Tileva
In some ways, Disconnect, the new film by Murderball director Henry Alex Rubin, is American Beauty for our wired world. It is an arresting look at the complicated entanglements that technology can create. Merely calling it a cautionary tale about the dangers of the big bad Internet would be simplistic: sure, none of the calamities that befall people in the movie are terribly novel and, in fact, seem directly plucked out of headlines, but it’s the acting that lends a human touch to what could have otherwise been a cinematic public service announcement. The film’s title could be interpreted as a reference to the disconnect and alienation the characters feel from each other, as well as the need for all of them to simply click the log-off button and disconnect from the webs they are so inexorably captured in.
Cindy (Paula Patton) and Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) are a married couple still mourning the loss of their baby. Their relationship strained by Derek’s stoic way of dealing with it (think the very male “I don’t want to talk about it” scenario), Cindy turns to an online support group for help, developing a cyber friendship with a man. When all of their assets are stolen by an identity thief and they seek to find the culprit, they are forced to face their own estrangement. This is one place where the movie mildly sputters, especially on the technological tip. For example, the private investigator tells them that this person “knows everything about you,” as though the fact that the thief has their vacation pictures is the most relevant when he has emptied out their bank accounts. Also, the explanation for how one can get a credit card number on the Internet and how a “Trojan” works was ham-handed at best and seemingly aimed at an audience that has yet to learn the definition of phishing. The typing out of chat conversations on screen is also a bit clunky.
Jason Bateman turns in a compelling performance as a high-powered/Blackberry-indentured lawyer, oblivious to what is going on in his son’s life. When his son is the victim of cyber bullying, he plunges into a world of self-condemnation and guilt and turns to Facebook, ironically the very source of the tragedy, to “get to know” his son. Frank Grillo plays the overwrought father of Jason, the cyber bully. The film does a good job of showing how bully behavior is often a learned behavior and one that has roots at home. It also excellently portrays the vicious mean boys/mean girls school environment today’s youth have to contend with.
Nina (Andrea Riseborough) is a career-minded, unscrupulous TV reporter who convinces Kyle (Max Thieriot), an 18-year-old webcam model, to participate in her piece on the underage sex webcam industry. Initially, she appears to mean well, but quickly finds herself way in over her head and her motives become increasingly loathsome and self-serving. She uses Kyle to further her career yet does nothing to really extricate him from the life he is trapped in, especially when her actions literally endanger his life.
Disconnect thrums with suspense and maintains an undercurrent of threat to the end. The acting is engrossing even though the character development leaves a bit to be desired. Ultimately, it does a good job of portraying just how elusive “reality” is starting to become in the superficial world of Facebook and social networking. Are the characters revealing their true selves and unspoken truths when shielded behind a screen, or are they acting out an alternate identity in the digital playground? And while they somehow manage to weave their way back towards at each other, the costs are undoubtedly high. Disconnect manages to avoid the pitfall of being overly didactic and preachy, even if the subject could have been plucked out of cyber security awareness month brochure.